Monday, July 29, 2019

Special Report: The Golden Age of Softball

In the 2010's, no sport captured the imagination of Hanover County sports fans, thanks to championships won, championships contested for, and the highest level of play possible throughout the Commonwealth of Virginia than in high school softball.

Whenever two teams, any combination of two Hanover County teams squared off against each other, you never truly knew what could happen.

A decade which began with Lee-Davis reaching back to back Group AAA state championship games, losing one, but rebounding to capture the 2011 state title, and saw Patrick Henry weave their way through to the 2012 Finals only to experience heartbreak in a championship classic with Cosby, to the dominance of Atlee, winners of three consecutive Class 5 state titles, winning two of them at the expense of arch rival Lee-Davis, it was one thrill ride after another for an entire decade.

Football captured our fall Friday fancy, we saw two teams capture state volleyball championships, and lacrosse exploded in popularity. But, for our money, the sport of the decade in Hanover County was softball.


--After the painful 2010 State Group AAA title game loss, Lee-Davis keeps its team essentially intact, riding the power pitching of Kelly Heinz back to the state final. Overcoming adversity, timely moments both at the plate and in the field, and the work of Heinz gave head coach Jackie Davis, who won her 300th career game later in the decade, that elusive state crown by a 1-0 score that we would see again.

--The following year, 2012, saw the rise of Atlee, Hanover and Patrick Henry, all trying to keep Lee-Davis from making a third state appearance. On the south side of the James River came a young, hungry Cosby squad. In the end, the Confederates, hampered a bit by Heinz's inability to pitch her senior year due to surgery, rode freshman Lauren McIntyre deep into the Central Region Tournament. But the survivors in this season would be the Patriots of Patrick Henry, as Matt Crowder's veteran squad, featuring seniors Madison Gilman, Emma Mitchell, Katie Woody and Sam Moore, and a spunky, tough freshman shortstop named Paige Mitchell, fell to Cosby in the regional final by a 3-2 score, and worked their way through multiple road trips north to reach the state final.

--In what we deem to be the "game of the decade", Patrick Henry and Cosby again fought, this time for the game's biggest prize. When the rollercoaster ride ended with a Cosby RBI single in the tenth inning, the final score again read: Cosby 3, Patrick Henry 2. It was truly a game for the ages.

--One interesting tidbit from 2012. The only team to register wins over Cosby, Patrick Henry, Atlee AND Lee-Davis that year? The Hanover Hawks.

--Atlee clinched a state bid in 2013, Patrick Henry advanced to the state semifinals in 2014, the first year of new classifications. By 2015, the Raiders and Patriots would see each other, Atlee finishing as the 5A South Region runner-up, Patrick Henry as 5A North Region champions out of Conference 16.

--June, 2015, the night of the state semifinal showdown saw a storm of epic proportions dump huge amounts of rain on the field at Robinson Secondary School in Fairfax. The grounds crew of the decade belongs to Robinson, somehow finding a way to get that game in that night. In what would be her final Patrick Henry at-bat, Paige Mitchell sent a ball deep to center. It was caught, but what if the ball traveled three more feet? Would there even have been an Atlee three-peat?

--The next night, facing Hickory for the state championship, most people forget the hero of the evening was Laura Kate Moss, who began her Atlee career sharing the circle with Peyton St. George. As the latter emerged as the number one starter, Moss took it in stride, and etched her name in Atlee softball history with a bases clearing shot into the left center field gap. The Raiders' improbable run to a state title was complete, ending the final season of coaching for both head coach John Earley and assistant coach Becky Levy, whose roles were reversed when Atlee won it all back in 2002.

--The back half of the decade saw, as usual, four teams with winning records year in and year out, and the rise of Atlee, who spent two years of their own in the 5A North Region in 2016 and 2017. Both years, they would return to the state tournament. Both years, waving at them on the other side of the bracket, would be the Lee-Davis Confederates.

--In 2016, Atlee pulled away for a state semifinal win over Lee-Davis before having to defeat Hickory again to capture the Class 5 title. A year later, Atlee and Lee-Davis met on the biggest stage the sport has to offer. And, in a game eerily similar to their last regular season encounter, it was one swing by Peyton St. George for a solo home run, following by her dominant work in the circle, and Atlee defensive work when needed, for a 1-0 win and their third straight title.

--The seniors of Lee-Davis' Class of 2018 got one more shot at glory, reaching the state semifinals the next year, playing a Prince George team they had defeated for the Region 5B title just a week before. But the dream for the Confederates ended at Glen Allen High School, as Laura Thompson had enough in the circle to keep Lee-Davis off balance, winning en route to a state championship of their own.

--The final year of the decade saw the rise, again, of Class 4 teams in Hanover and Patrick Henry, who faced each other for the Region 4B Championship, a game won by the visitors as the Patriots beat the Hawks for the second time this past season on their home turf. While neither team advanced past state quarterfinal play, it ended the decade that was with some questions....

1) Has the power balance in Hanover shifted from Class 5 to Class 4? Answer: Yes. With Lee-Davis moving to Class 4 this fall, three of the four teams in the county are now within a classification that also has perennial powers Dinwiddie and Powhatan.

2) Who is the next pitcher to truly dominate a season like Heinz, Mitchell, and St. George before them? Answer: The two with the best shot in 2020 are Lee-Davis' Savanah Henley and Patrick Henry's Riley Dull.

3) How will the game change in the decade to come? Answer: Hopefully in two ways. First, as the feeder systems within the county from Little League to Babe Ruth continue to prepare young women for their time on high school teams, we'll also see a day where not one, but two, teams win it all. Also, we hope to see a trend which began in 2019 be at least slightly reversed.

One of the gems of the game of softball has been its pace. A thrilling 3-2 game could be played in 90 minutes of less. In 2019, the pace of the game overall was noticeably slower. The introduction of the wristbands filled with numerical combinations which equaled what to do and when to do it, seemed to slow things down enough to notice a shift in pace of play. We hope players incorporate that element soon and not allow it to damage one of softball's best attributes.



We've struggled with this question for weeks. Our final answer is to hold a draft and select two "superteams" who would, in a perfect world, "play" each other for county supremacy. So, here are those teams selected, and, after that, a listing of players at each position who deserve recognition here for their contributions to the decade that was. Please note, we'll likely leave someone out, in your personal view. We have no problem with your comments here or on Twitter telling us as much.

Just know this was a labor of love, a way to salute hundreds of young ladies who thrilled us with their athleticism, talent, grit, leadership, and championship spirit, all decade long.

PICK 1: Dream Team A selects Peyton St. George, P, Atlee

How can you not pick a three-time state champion pitcher first off the board? Her 2017 final season statistics are the stuff of legend, and, scoring the only run of the state championship game just cements her legacy.

PICK 2: Dream Team B selects Kelly Heinz, P, Lee-Davis

Speaking of single-season records for the ages, try Heinz in 2011, nearly unstoppable. Add to that her phenomenal defense surrounding her, and there's no wonder Coach Davis' crew won it all that year.

PICK 3: Dream Team A selects Raine Wilson, C, Atlee

Team A wants to keep the "Battery of the Decade" intact, getting the vocal leader of the Raiders, who switched to catcher after playing third base, keeping the Raiders glued together and giving them their best power hitting option.

PICK 4: Dream Team B selects Paige Mitchell, SS, Patrick Henry

Team B wants defense up the middle. We all knew Paige was going to be special when, on tryout day in 2012, she raced to short when Coach Crowder asked the team to run to where they'd like to play defense. We forget that the 2012 Patriots, just a run shy of a state title, were essentially quarterbacked on the field by a freshman.

PICK 5: Dream Team A selects Logan Hawker, C, Lee-Davis

This is a sneaky good pick. Hawker can spell Wilson, moving her to third base if needed, or she's the ultimate weapon at DP. We still can't believe her home run into the sun at Deep Run during the regional tournament a few years ago, clearing over the foul pole. Team A is looking to put serious runs on the board.

PICK 6: Dream Team B selects Kelly Warren, OF, Atlee

Team B counters with continuing to build the better defense and finding the fastest player on the bases. Warren creates infield hits with the ease of a ballet dancer, but the grit of a tractor in high gear. In a blink, she's at third base. In a one run game, how do you stop her?

PICK 7: Dream Team A selects Kaylyn Shepherd, 1B, Hanover

The first Hawk off the board is one that you may have forgotten about. Her opponents did not, and her dominant work continued at the University of Central Arkansas. Defense and power hitting, plus a quite confidence to help lead her team. Had Hanover broken through for one Class 4 state appearance in her time there, more would certainly remember.

PICK 8: Dream Team B selects Beth Ford, 2B, Patrick Henry

The double play combination of Mitchell and Ford rides again. Beth was a quiet contributor, a silent but deadly force in Patrick Henry's runs back to the state semifinals in 2014 and 2015, then went on to switch positions and help lead Virginia Wesleyan to back to back Division III national championships. She's a winner.

PICK 9: Dream Team A selects Casey Barrett, SS, Atlee

She began her career as "Erica's younger sister", then shed that moniker with just a few swings of the bat and a couple of defensive gems deep in the hole at shortstop. Before it was over, Barrett became the "spirit" of an Atlee team that would win three state championships, dancing to keep them loose in the dugout before games, usually sporting the dirtiest uniform after the handshake line. Barrett could do it all.

PICK 10: Dream Team B selects Sydney Guess, OF, Lee-Davis

One of the best left-handed hitters of the 2010's by far. Defenses were sorely tested by the right fielder, but even better than that was Guess' steady hand defensively herself. Balls didn't get by her, and you could always count on precision throws to quell opponent threats.

PICK 11: Dream Team A selects Sam Moore, 3B, Patrick Henry

Playing third base in softball can be a crap shoot. One minute you're charging for the ball as hard as possible on the bunt. Next you have maybe a quarter-second to reflexively knock down a screaming liner headed your way. Few played "the hot corner" like Moore for the Patriots, especially during their 2012 state run. Add in her ability to go yard at any time, and drive in runs, too, and you have perhaps the best third baseman ever at Patrick Henry.

PICK 12: Dream Team B selects Madison Gilman, C, Patrick Henry

Very surprised Gilman lasted to this selection. It can be argued that Gilman was the most important catcher of the decade thanks to, first, her work at Patrick Henry, then later, her groundbreaking work at Randolph-Macon, helping the Yellow Jackets to their first NCAA Championship appearance in school history in 2015. Nothing fazed Gilman. When you needed a hit, she delivered. When you had to have the tag at the right place at home plate with the game on the line, Gilman delivered.

PICK 13: Dream Team A selects Shelby Hill, OF, Atlee

People forget that, before transferring to St. Margaret's to complete her high school career, then coming back to the county to star in center field for Randolph-Macon, Shelby Hill's considerable talents belonged at Atlee. Her defensive prowess was well beyond her years, and the clutch hit was something she brought with her in her bat bag to every game. Well-rounded doesn't begin to scratch the surface of how good Hill has been this decade.

PICK 14: Dream Team B selects Katie Woody, 1B, Patrick Henry

The run on 2012 Patriot graduates continues with Woody, a vacuum cleaner in the field around first base with the ability to lay down the perfect bunt or swing for the fences. She delivered at so many key moments in her career, especially in her senior season. Woody is one of three who graduated from Patrick Henry then who played at least part of their collegiate careers for Randolph-Macon (Gilman, Moore).

PICK 15: Dream Team A selects Heather Childress, OF, Lee-Davis

There were never any pretenses with Childress. What you got was consistent, solid output, in the field and at the plate, night in, night out. You must have three or four players like this in your lineup if you want to truly compete for titles. Childress brought these qualities to Lee-Davis. She was rewarded for her career efforts by being selected to the VHSCA All-Star Game, along with Kelly Warren, in 2017.

PICK 16: Dream Team B selects Jordan Durbin, 2B, Atlee

Sometimes a player who would star on another good team gets a bit lost in the shuffle. Not Jordan Durbin. Coaches we spoke with about this All-Decade Team were quick to point out the now East Tennessee State Buccaneer (with Kelly Warren), with not only her work in the field, but at the plate as well. Durbin found ways to get your team out of jams and keep your team in a position to win. Choosing Durbin means Team B can take Beth Ford into the outfield.

PICK 17: Dream Team A selects Erica Barrett, OF, Hanover

They didn't play for the same school in real life, but will play together in this "what-if" scenario. Barrett's grit and toughness was a foreshadowing of things to come with sister Casey. Erica would do anything necessary to help her team, from the squeeze play to going yard, aggressively running the basepaths and daring a ball to be hit her way. A true gamer.

PICK 18: Dream Team B selects Lacey Madison, 3B, Lee-Davis

Madison was a key component to the 2011 Group AAA State Championship team, contributing in every phase of the game possible, including leadership, helping the team overcome their 2010 finals loss to climb all the way to the top the next season.

PICK 19: Dream Team A selects Eryn King, 2B, Hanover

Every team needs an Eryn King. She keeps you loose in warm-ups, her smiles lights up a dugout, her energy is contagious, and then there's her defense, and the ability to produce big, timely hits out of the nine spot in the order. King was one of several Hawks who served as glue during their Conference 20 era seasons, from Kiandra Mitchum to Maura Long.

PICK 20: Dream Team B selects Shannon Albright, P/OF, Hanover

What might have been? In that 2012 season where Hanover beat everyone else, they did so, in part, without Albright, a top flight pitcher and perhaps their best hitter, after being in a car accident mid-season. Had Shannon played that full year, would history be different? One thing is for sure, her career statistics would have been even more packed than they ended up being, and we could be talking about a Player of The Decade candidate.


P: Peyton St. George, Atlee
C: Raine Wilson, Atlee
1B: Kaylyn Shepherd, Hanover
2B: Eryn King, Hanover
3B: Sam Moore, Patrick Henry
SS: Casey Barrett, Atlee
OF: Shelby Hill, Atlee
OF: Heather Childress, Lee-Davis
OF: Erica Barrett, Hanover
DP: Logan Hawker, Lee-Davis


P: Kelly Heinz, Lee-Davis
C: Madison Gilman, Patrick Henry
1B: Katie Woody, Patrick Henry
2B: Jordan Durbin, Atlee
3B: Lacey Madison, Lee-Davis
SS: Paige Mitchell, Patrick Henry
OF: Kelly Warren, Atlee
OF: Sydney Guess, Lee-Davis
OF: Beth Ford, Patrick Henry
DP: Shannon Albright, Hanover


NOTE: This is NOT a "First Team" and "Second Team" All-Decade here. These are two teams drafted among the best players of the past ten years. And, when considering this list, we considered a lot of other great players, too. We salute them now in the Honorable Mentions:


Emma Mitchell, Patrick Henry
Jessica Holte, Atlee
Candace Whittemore, Patrick Henry
Lauren McIntyre, Lee-Davis
Kiandra Mitchum, Hanover

Haleigh Cottrell, Lee-Davis
Cam Hall, Atlee
Ashley Samuels, Patrick Henry
Maura Long, Hanover

1st Base:
Amy Wingfield, Lee-Davis
Delani Ferrar, Atlee
Jesse Gentry, Lee-Davis
Hailey Thomas, Patrick Henry

2nd Base:
Kinsee Stonebraker, Lee-Davis
Ella Alvis, Lee-Davis
Ashley Samuels, Patrick Henry
Blair Rhodes, Patrick Henry

3rd Base:
Taylor Sanderford, Atlee
Erin Acors, Hanover

Lauren Taylor, Lee-Davis
Grayson Radcliffe, Patrick Henry
Taylor Sutherland, Atlee
Julia Mardigian, Hanover

Casey Price, Lee-Davis
Autumn Slemaker, Patrick Henry
Mackenzie Wyatt, Hanover
Jessica McLaughlin, Hanover
Mattie Fitzgerald, Atlee
Brooke Throckmorton, Hanover

Hunter Glave, Patrick Henry
Kylie Stonebraker, Lee-Davis
Lacey Sullivan, Hanover
Ellen Palya, Hanover

In closing, our big four awards. We name a Pitcher, Player and Coach of the Year and a Legacy Award to the player whose career had the most impact on the county softball scene over the past ten years.

COACH OF THE DECADE: Jackie Davis, Lee-Davis

Over 300 career wins, five state tournament appearances, the 2011 state title, and now, two decades of leading a program to a consistently high level. Year in and year out, all decade long, people looked at Lee-Davis as a team you must beat to win it all.

PITCHER OF THE DECADE: Peyton St. George, Atlee

Three state titles, and, in her finest hour, her senior year, she literally shut down every team she faced. An amazing run.

PLAYER OF THE DECADE: Raine Wilson, Atlee

It's hard to not pick a player who led her team, played at an All-State level at two of the hardest defensive positions, and fueled her team's offense. Having three rings doesn't hurt the cause either.

THE LEGACY AWARD: Candace Whittemore, Patrick Henry

When Emma Mitchell and the great Patrick Henry Class of 2012 departed, everyone wondered who would pick up the softball in Ashland? Not only did Whittemore do that, she was an impressive three-year starter for the Patriots, picking up the attention of Randolph-Macon College. Just completing her career there last spring, Whittemore became the school's all-time winningest pitcher, and the first Randolph-Macon pitcher to take to the circle in the NCAA Division III Women's College World Series. Bravo, Candace!

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