CHAMPIONS OF STANLY COUNTY: Teams find good fortune in the 2010s

Published 6:05 pm Friday, March 22, 2019

Following up on success from its early years of high school fast-pitch softball, Stanly County has watched three teams win state championships during the 2010s.

South Stanly 2012

Coach David Poplin said the team had big expectations of being very good since it had seven seniors that played together for a long time.

The team “had great leadership and team chemistry,” he said.

One of those seniors was the coach’s daughter, Emily, which Poplin said meant he “knew all the players and their families quite well. I had coached or been around most of the players before.”

Along with high school ball, most of the players had grown up playing Dixie Youth Softball representing Norwood as well as playing travel ball together.

He added “many of our vacations were spent together traveling state to state playing in the Dixie World Series.”

However, that senior group, including Ali Gallagher, Lacey Leary, Meredith Martin, Hailey Starnes and Allison Smith, would not include its returning catcher in 2012. Senior Erin Thompson, an All-State catcher the previous season, suffered a torn ACL knee ligament during basketball season.

Midway through the season in a road game against a talented Chatham Central squad, South suffered another setback when Steely Russell, the team’s starting pitcher, went down with a fractured elbow in her pitching arm in a base-running collision at first base.

Entering the playoffs, South had suffered six losses during the season, two to Chatham Central and two to East Montgomery. The Bulls bounced back in the Yadkin Valley Conference tournament to beat both the Bears and Eagles to win the tourney.

The two previous seasons, South had not went further than the fourth round thanks to two losses to the East Surry Cardinals.

In 2012, South was at home for the first three playoff games, posting wins over South Stokes 9-2, Highland Tech 13-0 and Lincoln Charter 4-0.

“West Wilkes and Lincoln Charter were huge wins for us,” Poplin said.

“Both were highly rated and had outstanding pitching.”

However, the Cardinals were not waiting for the Bulls in the fourth round. Instead, South traveled to West Wilkes and finally advanced to the 1A Western Regional Series with a 6-1 win over the Blackhawks.

The Bulls then swept the Bessemer City Yellow Jackets in the best-of-three regional series, winning 8-0 at home two nights after the win at West Wilkes, then going to Bessemer City and winning 9-2.

In the 1A State Finals at Walnut Creek Park in Raleigh, the Rebel Bulls faced the Camden County Bruins. The teams would have to wait for that first game until Saturday because of heavy rains.

In the opening game of the series, Emily Hearne took the mound for South.

The junior had “stepped up big to pitch when Steely got hurt,” Poplin said.

However, three fielding errors led to four early runs for the Bruins in the game as Camden took the first game 11-4.

Later the same day, Poplin gave the ball to Russell, who had thrown just one inning since suffering the elbow injury April 20. She dueled Camden starter Rachel Gillikin, who had won the first game, to a scoreless tie for six innings.

In the top of the seventh, Smith dropped a bloop single over the second baseman’s head. The pinch runner, Chelsey Culp, reached third on a slap single from Haley Carpenter, then both scored when Martin doubled down the left field line.

Camden had two on in the bottom of the seventh, but two plays on pop flies, including one by catcher Taylor Gray, preserved a 2-0 win and meant the two teams would play a deciding third game on Sunday.

Gray, who had taken over for Thompson behind the plate the entire season, “did a tremendous job,” Poplin said.

Playing in the final game, Poplin said, was “a surreal feeling. It was our 34th game of the year but felt like one of the first.”

Poplin changed the lineup in the final game of the series, moving Carpenter to bat cleanup, or fourth in the batting order. The move paid off immediately for South with two runs in the bottom of the first.

Thompson returned to the lineup for her final game in high school and also had a hit in the first inning. An RBI each from Leary and Smith put the Bulls up 2-0 early en route to a 9-2 win and the title.

Russell won both games in the state finals series to win Most Valuable Player honors.

Poplin said the win also felt great because South Stanly’s baseball team had won the state title the same weekend.

South became the third school to win baseball and softball state championships in the same season, matching Cherryville in 2001 and North Lenoir in 2005.

“I’ve known and had a great relationship with (South baseball coach) Terry Tucker. We were able to attend their championship game and they were able to attend ours. It was great recognition for our school,” Poplin said.

“Norwood and Aquadale are very supportive of our high school athletic teams. The year we won our state championship, the local police met us outside of Norwood and escorted us through town,” Poplin said. “We had our own welcome back parade. The girls were thrilled with the support and attention given them during our championship run.

“I’m not sure about legacy, but my assistant coaches, Matthew Little and Mike Lisk, and myself take great pride in our program and the way we do things,” he added. “Our practices and meetings are always productive and with a purpose. Our teams are always ready to compete regardless of circumstances. We take a lot of pride in being followed by and known statewide by other high school head coaches.”

2013 West Stanly

The Colts graduated five seniors from the 2012 team that went 23-7, losing in three games in the 1A Western Regional Series.

Despite losing many experienced players, coach Wesley Kidd said the team always set high standards, with four goals every season: win the regular-season title, the conference tournament, the regional series and the state title.

The West Stanly Lady Colts celebrate winning the 2013 2A State Softball Championship.

“It probably seemed to most that we would not be able to achieve these goals,” Kidd said. “However, we had a great senior class and young players that knew how to play the game and wanted to win…the expectations and standards have always been high at West Stanly. The players understand that coming in and that tradition has been set by each group that preceded the team before.”

Losing to Madison in the regionals was tough, Kidd said.

“It made the returners hungry to get back and prove that even after losing so many good players, we were still a team to be reckoned with,” Kidd said.

Bad weather to start the season did not allow West to get a lot of practice in before opening the season against Porter Ridge.

“The first time that we took infield that year was at our first game,” Kidd said. “We had to put players in positions and just see how it would work out. It took some time, but finally we found a winning combination.”

West finished third in the regular season in the Rocky River Conference behind Cuthbertson and Piedmont, accounting for three of the team’s four losses that season. The Colts also got dealt a setback just before the RRC tournament when the team’s second-leading hitter, senior right fielder Brittany Thorpe, broke her leg. Kelsey Pardini stepped in “and we never missed a beat,” Kidd said.

The Colts went on to beat the Panthers and the Cavaliers in the conference tournament and in the state playoffs before reaching the 2A Western Regional Series. The Colts bested the Pisgah Bears 3-2 and 14-8 to reach the state finals.

Waiting for West in the finals was a South Granville Vikings team which had five slow-pitch state championships under its belt and two fast-pitch titles — the 1996 1A/2A and the 1998 2A championships.

The Colts fell behind 3-0 early in the first game of the series, but scored four runs in the top of the fourth and fifth innings to take the opening game, 8-5.

In the second game, West again trailed 3-0 after three innings, but the Colts got RBI hits from Macey Webb and Walker Barbee and the Colts rallied to win 4-3 and take the series.

West’s offense was prolific in the 2013 season.

The team batted .405 for the season and had an on-base percentage of .482. First baseman Macey Webb batted .686 that season and was on base eight times out of 10 (.807 OBP). Beyond her numbers, Kidd said Webb’s leadership “was even more important.” She went on to play NCAA Div. I softball at South Carolina the next season.

Combined with her efforts at the plate was the pitching of senior Savannah Blalock. She earned Most Valuable Player honors in the state finals series.

“Her work ethic and performance were exceptional,” Kidd said.

“You don’t win state titles with just a few players. You win state titles with a team effort and that is what we really had that year. Every player had a role and every player performed that role extremely well,” he added.

Along with Webb and Blalock and Thorpe were senior Allie Furr, juniors Samantha Lowder, Catherine Morgan and Pardini, sophomores Allison Swaringen, McKenzie Barbee, Alyssa Russell and Hannah Pressley, and freshmen Hannah Pressley, Brennan Broadaway, Maddie Brown, Walker Barbee and Raegan Thomas.

“Each and every one of these players contributed to our success,” Kidd said. “I have always cared deeply for my players and always hoped that they understood that. We pushed each other every day to become the best that we could possibly be.”

Talking about his assistants that season, Kidd said he “had the good fortune of being able to coach” with his brother, Dennis Kidd, and Kristi Tuzenew.

“We trusted each other and we all had the same goal,” he said.

The coach also said the team had great community support.

“The facilities for softball at West Stanly are a direct representation of the support of the players, parents and community,” he said. “Being a part of a state championship team is every coach’s and player’s dream.”
State titles “are a part of a great tradition at West Stanly and this is something that I know (the players) are proud to be a part of,” he added.

“They are not easy to come by. It was a huge honor to be a part of such a great staff, team and community. I have been blessed to be a part of so many great players and memories. God has always blessed me and surrounded me with great people.”

2017 North Stanly

Greg Speight, having won previously with South Stanly in 1998, headed into the 2017 season at North. He had positive feelings about his team’s chances to challenge for a state title, having reached the state finals the year before, losing to Princeton in three games.

“As a coach I feel most of us are glass half full type people, so you always think going all the way is a possibility if you can get some breaks and avoid key injuries,” Speight said.

However, the team was dealt a setback early in the season when stellar pitcher Sam Hogan suffered a leg injury warming up prior to the second inning of the Comets game against West Stanly. At the time, North was 8-0 on the season.

“The lows seemed early and often,” Speight said.

In that game, freshmen Payton Landis and Merris Talbert combined their efforts on the mound to bounce back with a 9-5 win over the Colts, a win Speight said gave the team confidence.

Hogan ended up having a torn ligament in her knee and did not pitch a lot after that game, but she continued to contribute offensively as well as playing first base.

Members of the 2017 North Stanly softball team celebrate their state championship win.

The tear was not found, Speight said, because had it been diagnosed she “probably would have been done for the season …. having her bat in the lineup and her leadership were crucial to our success.”

Illustrating the quality of softball in the county that season, North, South and Gray Stone Day School combined for 65 wins; both the Bulls and Knights presented challenges to the Comets’ run to the title.

In the regular season, South won close games over North, 6-4 and 7-5, finished 10-0 in the Uwharrie Athletic Conference and beat the Comets 6-5 in the UAC tournament finals.

North’s other conference loss was a 3-2 defeat to Gray Stone, which finished tied with the Comets for second place with 7-3 UAC marks. The Comets reached the UAC finals with a 5-2 win over the Knights.

“The tough county games really helped us develop skills to deal with pressure situations which would be huge in playoffs,” Speight said.

The losses put North into the state playoffs as a No. 13 seed. The Comets won at home over Cherryville, 15-5, then took the trip to Hiwassee Dam and topped the Eagles in four innings, 12-1.

Waiting for North in the third round to host the Comets was the sixth-seeded Rebel Bulls squad.

Hogan started the game for North and immediately got five runs of support in the first inning. Talbert threw the final four innings and the Comets advanced past South, 5-3. Speight called the five runs in the first inning one of the team’s high points of the year.

After another win in the fourth round, a 10-0 victory at No. 3 Chatham Central, the Comets found another county rival waiting for them in the best-of-three regional series: the No. 14-seeded Gray Stone Knights.
The two teams waited through two days of rain before getting out on North’s field. Again, the Comets faced adversity as a fielding error and a passed ball allowed the Knights to take the first game of the series, 2-1.

“Just try to win one at a time, get the second game and then worry about third one,” Speight recalled telling his team after the first game.

North bounced back, getting a complete-game shutout from Talbert in the second game at Pfeiffer, 8-0, forcing a deciding third game back in New London.

In the final game of the series, North trailed 4-0 before taking a 5-4 lead. The Knights added a run in the top of the seventh to force extra innings.
Senior Weslyn Almond and a freshman, Landis combined in the bottom of the eighth inning to lift the Comets to a 6-5 win and the regional title, which Speight called an “amazing comeback.”

North’s opponent in the state finals series was the Whiteville Wolfpack, which had not been in the finals since 2014. As the season had gone as well, winning the series was no easy task for the Comets.

North rallied from a two-run deficit to take the first game of the series 6-2, but the Wolfpack jumped to a five-run lead in the second game to win 12-0 in five innings, forcing a deciding third game late on a Saturday afternoon.
That final game of the season saw Whiteville score one run in the bottom of the third only to have North tie the game in the next half-inning.

The game went past regulation through the eighth, ninth and 10th innings.

In the top of the 11th, it was another combination between a freshman and a senior which put the Comets back ahead.

Landis singled, then senior third baseman Alexa Sells took the first pitch of her fifth at-bat of the game over the fence in left field for a two-run homer run.

“It was crushed. It was gone. No doubt,” Speight said.

The Wolfpack scored a run in the bottom of the 11th and had runners on second and third with one out, but Talbert struck out the final two batters of the game to give North the school’s first NCHSAA women’s team championship and the school’s second overall women’s team title.
Speight said he thought his team was going to win heading into Raleigh, but added he “did not expect it to be so dramatic.”

He said the biggest play which is not remembered in the final game came in the bottom of the fifth. With two outs, Whiteville had a runner on first with a walk when the next batter doubled over Eury’s head in left field. She threw toward the plate, cut off by Sells, who fired to Selke at home to cut the runner down.

“That would have been winning run and we most likely would have lost 2-1 and been runners-up again,” Speight said.

The North coach added Talbert “continued to be phenomenal and pitched all 11 innings, getting better as the game went on. To get that quality performance from a freshman was just unimaginable.”
The team’s three seniors, Hogan, Sells and Weslyn Almond, got a lot of attention that season, Speight said, noting the three are playing in college.

The North coach said the trio’s biggest roles “were the leadership they provided; they worked extremely hard and held everyone to their standard. It is almost impossible to appreciate what they did without witnessing it daily.”

One of the most interesting aspects of coaching softball in high school, Speight said, is coaches have to get players to understand they usually will not get to play the position in the field they like the most.

“They have to put the team first and that usually means that a lot of players have to move around from year to year,” Speight said.

The team had examples of that including Mimi Selke, who played center field as a freshman with North but became the team’s catcher, allowing Sells to move from behind the plate to third base. Having her arm at third allowed North to defend bunting more effectively, Speight said. He said Payton Landis stepped into center field for Selke and played solid for the Comets.

The other issue with the team defensively was second base. Jada Jordan, who preferred to play outfield, moved to second.

“Once she accepted that her playing second was best for the team, she worked extremely hard and did a fantastic job and was a vital part of our success,” he said.

The 2017 Comets were also a throwback team of sorts in terms of the history of the game of baseball when teams often did not have a bench. North normally only had 10 players available to play, and when Hogan was hurt the team played a straight nine with no substitutes.

With that North team, players like Devyn Eury contributed after missing her freshman season with a broken ankle, along with Camille Shelton’s timely hitting and solid play in right field. Abby Roseman also filled in some for Hogan at first and at other times in the outfield and was “a great team player who accepts her role with the best of attitudes.”

Speight said high school coaches “do not win championships without a great deal of support from community, (school) staff, managers, scorekeepers, boosters and parents.

“The parents of these girls were best, always providing more than we asked for, whether it was throwing extra batting practice, having Gatorade on hand, pre-game meals, a beach trip over Easter, buying state champion jackets or raising money for charter bus and rings. The list was endless,” he added.

Speight also gave credit to assistant coach M.K. Cheek, a former college player working on a master’s degree, saying she “mentored the girls so much with fundamentals and game type situations.

“I am thankful to have been part of that season and to have shared all the thrills we experienced together. Those moments live forever.”

Contact Charles Curcio at 704-983-1361 or via Twitter (@charles_curcio).

About Charles Curcio

Charles Curcio was the sports editor of the Stanly News & Press from 1999-2001 and has currently served in the same capacity since 2008. He was awarded the NCHSAA Tim Stevens Media Representative of the Year and named CNHI Sports Editor of the Year in 2014. He has also been honored twice by the North Carolina Press Association.

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