CHAMPIONS OF STANLY COUNTY: South, West softball used familiarity of fast-pitch to win state titles
Published 11:28 am Saturday, March 16, 2019
High school softball teams in North Carolina first competed at the state level in the North Carolina High School Athletic Association in 1975. Two decades later, teams transformed from the slow-pitch version of the game to fast-pitch.
When softball play split in the state into slow and fast pitch in 1996, two Stanly teams entwined with each other established a baseline of success for which future teams continued to strive.
The 1997 West Stanly Colts and 1998 South Stanly Rebels won state championships in the early years of NCHSAA fast-pitch softball using competition against each other to elevate both team’s level of success.
1997 West Stanly
Even beyond the competition within the county’s borders, West Stanly found success at a high level the first year of competition in the spring when there were three classifications in 1996.
The Colts played in a combined 1A/2A class and reached the final four of the state with South Granville, Polk County and Bunn.
Playing in a double-elimination tournament, Bunn beat West in the semis 4-3 but the Colts roared back in the elimination rounds with wins of 28-0 over Polk County and 10-0 over Bunn.
In the finals, South Granville denied West that first state title 1-0. Coach Christi Edwards said finishing second in the state made the team “very determined heading into the 1997 season.”
“Our goal was to win our conference, then win the playoff rounds, and head back to Raleigh to finish what we started,” she said. “We believed we could bring that state title home in 1997.”
Edwards said the one-run loss was “by far the toughest loss. In a game that close, you always replay every single play. We asked ourselves the question ‘what if?’ over and over. This is why we were so determined to redeem ourselves.”
The coach said “lots of hard work, long practices, running and conditioning prepared us to go all the way.”
She said the team was blessed with a number of veteran players, including seniors Yodie Jackson, Joy Stogner, Sarah Rogers, Lindsey Weaver, Pete Jackson, Meredith Little, Tara Austin and Julie Efird “who really carried our team.” The team had four juniors (Heidi Barbee, Tamara Davis, Jessica Heath and Kristi Helms) and one freshman, Summer Eudy, who later in the season proved her worth to the team.
“Each of these players played a role in our success as a team,” Edward said.
After winning the conference and reaching the final four, the team was “ecstatic,” Edwards said. The long trip to Walnut Creek Park in Raleigh by the team on an activity bus was made easier because the coach said the bus was followed “by a parade of parents, siblings, grandparents, teachers, administration and community supporters.”
The team waiting for West in the semifinals was a familiar one as the Colts took the field that first day in Raleigh — South Granville.
“The memory of how it felt one year ago when we left the complex after that loss was our driving force and motivation to step up to the plate. We were there to win,” Edwards said.
West came out of the gates strong in the first game with a 13-7 win over Murphy, but the team waiting in the winner’s final was South Granville.
Edwards said the Vikings’ team “was equally determined and played with a little more confidence.” A 4-2 loss to South Granville put the Colts back where the team was the season before after the first day — the elimination rounds.
“(That game) could have been our season low point; however, we pulled together and regrouped,” Edwards said. “Armed with our desire to win and our passion for playing as a team — one unit — we took the field.”
Overcoming the errors from the first game and making adjustments to the game plan, West bounced back in the elimination rounds to beat Clayton 11-2 to reach the state finals with South Granville, in the final game of the opening day of play.
“It was time to eat and recharge our bodies for the following day of battle,” Edwards said.
However, Edwards, who was eight months pregnant with her first son, Connor, said she did not get much sleep that night along with her assistant coaches, Melissa Parker and David Heath. The coach remembered pacing in the parking lot of the team’s hotel at 2 a.m. with both assistants discussing adjustments on offense and defense “to empower the team.”
South Granville hit West’s two veteran pitchers — Stogner and Rogers — well in the first game. The decision was made to start the team’s other outstanding pitcher, freshman Eudy, which put Stogner on third base and Rogers at shortstop. That move “created the most solid defense in the state of North Carolina in 1997,” Edwards said.
Eudy would be a surprise to South Granville and would give the Vikings a different style of pitching to face.
“South Granville was there to hit; they proved that earlier that day. … My gut kept telling me they would come out ready for either (Stogner or Rogers),” Edwards said.
“When Coach Edwards told me I was the starting pitcher I was super nervous, but as I looked around me at the wall of athletes behind me I knew all I needed to do was pitch and they would defend,” Summer Eudy Carver said.
Needing two wins to claim the state title, the coach said the first game was more than a game.
“It was a mental challenge that we needed to overcome,” she said. “We had to pull together and decide that as a team, playing with heart and determination, we would not stop until we won.”
The decision by West to start the freshman caused a few “whispers and doubts” on Saturday, but Edwards said those were silenced quickly after Eudy quickly struck out the first batter and the team sat the Vikings down in the first inning.
“Summer did an amazing job on the mound and the entire team supported her by playing flawless defense,” Edwards said.
She also credited the play of Weaver behind the plate as catcher saying she “would throw you out from her knees if you considered stealing second.”
The two worked “in unison” to sit down the Vikings’ batters one at a time and the Colts won the first game 6-1.
With the first win for West under the team’s belt, the two teams had 20 minutes to rest in between games. Both teams had one loss in the double-elimination tourney, so the entire season for both came down to one game.
“We followed the philosophy: if it is working, do not change a thing,” Edwards said, sending Eudy back to the mound. “There can only be one champion.”
The final game was one Edwards said “was the most intense game” with which she had been involved. The game had “lots of close calls in the field and at the plate.”
Eudy and the Colts kept it a 1-1 game until the bottom of the seventh. Eudy walked and later scored on a throwing error for a dramatic walkoff one-run victory and the title.
“I have played in many softball games as a player, and won many tournaments as a player. But winning the state tournament as a coach meant more to me than all the others,” assistant coach Parker said.
“The saying ‘hard work pays off’ is one of my very favorites. The girls heard me say it at every practice, every game and even in the halls at school. Our hard work paid off,” Edwards said.
Even beyond the work in season, Edwards said, the reason the team was so successful early in the NCHSAA’s state play was the fact that fast-pitch softball “had been around in the western end (of Stanly) for many years way before it was played in the high school.”
She noted the local recreation leagues had played fast-pitch around 30 to 40 years.
“We had played fast-pitch softball in youth leagues all our lives. When we went to high school and were forced to play slow pitch since the NCHSAA was slow to allow fast-pitch in high school,” Hathcock said. “When fast-pitch started during my junior year we immediately had eyes on the state championship,” referring to 1996.
“Our state title win made people realize what an exciting sport fast-pitch softball is and how community support is an amazing thing,” Edwards said.
“When I think back to the years of coaching at West Stanly High, I can not help to be overwhelmed with joy. I hope my impact as a coach instilled a few qualities in my players: perseverance, determination, hard work ethic and teamwork. Accountability for their teammates, both on and off the field, was ingrained in all of us. My hope is that when they remember ‘those days’ they smile and realize they accomplished something that very few in Stanly County had done in 1997.”
The impact of that team on her life, Hathcock said, was powerful.
“Since then I’ve been many places and I’ve gotten to do some awesome things, opportunities that the platform of softball allowed me to experience. I am blessed. It will always be one of my top life experiences,” she said.
1998 South Stanly
In 1997, when the Colts went on to win the 1A/2A state title, South had a strong season of its own, going 19-2 overall. The two losses in the season for the Rebels were at the hands of the eventual state champion.
The next season, the NCHSAA moved fast-pitch softball from three classifications to four. South played in the 1A classification that season, but only two other teams in the conference, Albemarle and East Montgomery, had fast-pitch teams.
This led coach Greg Speight and the squad from South to take on mostly bigger schools.
In the late 1990s, Speight said, pitching dominated the sport.
“The hitters had not caught up because of the newness of playing the sport,” he said.
To that end, a South team made up of mostly sophomores and juniors used two pitchers that season: Courtney Smith and Dana Bowers.
The two pitchers brought different styles to the mound, Speight said.
Smith’s pitching philosophy was to change speeds “and mix things up,” while Bowers was a power pitcher “who dominated with speed and location.”
Once South got into the playoffs, Bowers became the primary starter. Speight said South “felt like if we scored one run we could win” with Bowers toeing the rubber.
With such an emphasis on defense and pitching in the early days of the sport on the NCHSAA level, Speight said South was solid defensively.
Lindsey Lentz and Heidi Smith rotated between first base and catcher, while Bowers and Smith played at short when they were not pitching. Holly Smith was the team’s only freshman starter, playing second, while Jessica Morgan played outfield, third base and did some pitching.
Alex Freeman, Amberly Morton, Sandy Thomas and Mandy Hurley rounded out the outfield, with Hurley playing some at third, but the team, similar to Speight’s 2017 state title softball team with North Stanly, had 11 players and did not have depth on the bench.
In South’s double-elimination tournament in Raleigh, the four regional winners included Louisburg, Pamlico County and Cherryville. The Rebels won the first two games and stayed in the winners’ bracket, pounding Cherryville 10-3 and Pamlico 15-3.
South faced Louisburg on Sunday morning after rain cancelled the state final the day before. Bowers took the mound for the Rebels but did not have her usual outcome, as South lost 1-0.
“The umpire had a very high strike zone and Dana was a low ball pitcher; she walked about as many batters that game as she had all season, pretty much with anything below the waist was a ball,” Speight said.
With the umpires rotating for the second game, Bowers had a different strike zone with which to work an she “moved them down,” Speight said.
Louisburg’s pitcher had thrown 37 innings in Raleigh as her team fought back through the losers’ bracket to challenge South for the title.
The Rebels won the game 6-1 and the title. Bowers was named the tournament’s Most Valuable Player for her work on the mound as well as hitting 9-for-14 for the tourney.
Speight said the championship at South was more similar to the 2017 title with North, adding “it involved many people making contributions.”
He credited the efforts of assistant coaches Tammy Blalock, Kent Bowers and Gary Smith, while saying the South Stanly “administration, community and parents all chipped in to help pay for rings and travel.”
The former South coach said he remembered driving the bus back from Raleigh with his 4-year-old daughter, Hailey, The two were the only ones on the bus and got to reflect on the season and “some good memories.”
Ten years after the title win, when Speight was coaching at North and the Comets visited South Stanly for a game, South hosted a 10-year reunion of the title team.
“That was a special moment, seeing all those girls again,” Speight said.
One of the players, Stacey Smith Laney, said she and others on the teams had played together for a long time even before high school. Many of the same players on the 1998 team had won a Dixie Youth Softball state championship in 1996, finishing third in the World Series that year while also winning the sportsmanship award for the tournament.
“We were so tight. We grew up together. It was a special sisterhood,” Laney said.
Playing on that Dixie Youth team as well as the state title team two years later taught her a lesson in life: “never count us out.”
A number of the players on South’s state title team also played other sports together in high school like basketball.
A pregame CD full of music like “Song of the South” by Alabama and “South’s Gonna Do It Again” by the Charlie Daniels Band helped hype up the team for its championship run.
Contact Charles Curcio at 704-983-1361 or via Twitter (@charles_curcio).