First Posted: 6/4/2009
PILOT MOUNTAIN This weekend the East Surry Cardinals softball team has a chance to do something none of the other state champions in the schools history have accomplished: back-to-back titles.
The Cardinals head into the weekend as the defending 1A state champions and effectively as the number one ranked 1A team in North Carolina with a 27-2 record, with three straight 1-0 playoff wins against, what might be, tougher competition than what awaits them in Raleigh.
But all of that wont matter after the first pitch of the Cards opening round game against last seasons runner-up Swain County, because as the Cardinals know, nothing is written in stone at this level.
For all but three of the girls, the scene in Raleigh is nothing new.
Last season the Cardinals tasted success and brought home a title, a year after coming home empty handed.
Cardinal senior Courtney Simmons, who will make her third appearance in the state finals this weekend, said she and Easts other upperclassmen want their younger counterparts to have the same experience of winning a title and have tried to impart to them just what it takes to bring it home.
Weve talked about it, weve had plenty of team meetings about how we want to win for the underclassmen and get to Raleigh so that they can experience it, Simmons said. They want to win it for us because they want us to go out with a good taste in our mouth. I think weve all talked about our past experience of losing and winning a state championship and the pressure that comes with it and I think we are ready to handle it.
Its pretty important to me, but mainly I want the other team members to experience it, too, senior catcher Paige Honeycutt said. It will just add one to mine but some of those that dont have a championship will get one, which will be good.
East is riding a three-game pitching clinic by junior Hayley Shelton, last seasons championship MVP, who enters this weekends finals with a 17-0 record and a 0.19 ERA.
Offensively, the Cards came into the state playoffs bashing the ball, blowing out their Northwest 1A tournament opponents and scoring double-digits runs seemingly at will.
But the state playoffs have been a different story, with East needing and getting just one run in three of its four playoff games, with wins coming largely due to Sheltons stuff on the mound.
Simmons said while Shelton has been terrific, the Cardinals need to produce more runs in Raleigh, adding she thinks with the atmosphere of a championship series she and her teammates will pick up the slack.
She has been fantastic and I am glad that she is keeping runners off base for the most part, Simmons said of her teams ace. Offensively, we need to step up to balance out our team. In the playoffs we did great, even though I guess we were a little nervous, but right now we are actually to the point we are in Raleigh and everyone is going to have that adrenaline rush and be ready to go.
Honeycutt, who has caught nearly every game the past two seasons, said she thinks the close games have helped to prepare the Cardinals for what is to come.
I think that has helped us a lot, Honeycutt said. Usually we see our better competition before we actually even get to Raleigh and being able to get by those teams, even if it was 1-0, was pretty big and hopefully that will give us a boost going into these next couple of games.
East Surry coach Derrick Hill, who will be trying for his third title as a head coach, said no matter what happens over the weekend, the Cardinals should not be surprised by what they face in Raleigh.
We know what to expect when we get there, Hill said. We know its probably going to be hot. We know we are going to have to play three or four games in two days, hopefully three. We know we have to score some runs and I think these kids are ready to do that anyway we have to do it.
Hill and assistant Brian Hall have had the task of scouting the three teams which the Cardinals could face this weekend. They are familiar with Swain County, but eastern representatives North Johnston (21-4) and Jamesville (15-4) are another story.
Thats something we are trying to work on right now, Hill said Wednesday. The kid from North Johnston is a lot like Shawn Watson (East Surrys ace last season). From what we hear she has a really good change-up. Her other stuff is not overpowering, its not going to give us trouble, but if we arent ready for that change-up, then we are going to look dumb.
Hill said one aspect the Cardinals must focus on is being patient and aggressive at the same time.
We want to score early and we feel like when we do that we tend to keep rolling, Hill said. When we struggle early, we tend to struggle for several innings. We start pressing. When they dont do what they are normally accustomed to doing early in the game and they start trying too hard. Somebody is trying to hit a homerun or a double in the gap, when all we need is baserunners. We dont have anybody in this team that is not going to be prepared for what weve seen.
The Cardinals start the weekend as visitor in both of its first two games, something which Hill said he doesnt understand but doesnt worry him either.
That doesnt really bother us, Hill said. There have not been many games this year we played on the road where we didnt score a run or two in the first inning. They are prepared for that. Our goal is to be down there Friday and by 5:15 have four or five runs. If we can do that, I like our chances.
Hill said he thinks the Cardinals have surprised many of prognosticators this season by returning to Raleigh. After losing four all-state caliber performers from last seasons title team, the Cardinals entered 2009 with slightly lower expectations from the outside world.
But after walking through their conference schedule undefeated and squeaking out tough wins in the playoffs, Hill said if his team is anything its battle tested.
Weve been in two straight close games against really good competition, Hill said. We were fortunate to be at home and get to bat last, but at the same time, they tend to respond to that type of challenge and they have all year.
With rain forecasted for today, it might take a little longer to find out what lies in store for the Cardinals. As her teammates practiced around her Wednesday, Simmons, the 2009 Northwest 1A MVP, said that just being in the championships is an honor, making it to Raleigh three times is a privilege, but another championship wouldnt hurt at all.
For the seniors this is our third time and that is just awesome in itself but actually leaving with a state championship, another one, would be great, Simmons said. I wouldnt mind having another ring in my jewelry box in college.
Contact Thomas Smith at [email protected] or 719-1920.