In 1966, The Roanoke Times wrote an article about the Woodlawn High School baseball team titled, “Fantastic Woodlawn Exploits Hard for Anyone To Believe.” Fifty years later, the exact same headline could be used to describe another Carroll County team – the Lady Cavaliers’ softball squad.
Consider these jaw-dropping facts:
– Carroll County’s record is 39-1 since the start of the 2015 season, a 97.5 winning percentage that would make the Golden State Warriors jealous
– The Lady Cavaliers have outscored opponents 119-11 en route to a 13-0 start this season
– Carroll has outscored opponents 375-54 since the start of the 2015 campaign.
– Carroll County’s pitching staff has a combined earned run average (ERA) of 0.53 right now. By comparison, the next closest individual pitcher in the entire Timesland (Roanoke Times’ coverage area) is 1.12.
– If the season ended today, sophomore ace Sydney Nester’s current ERA of 0.22 would be the third lowest in the history of the Virginia High School League (VHSL) since the mound was moved from 40 feet to 43 feet in 2011.
– Through 13 games, Carroll’s team’s batting average is .396.
Incredible Team Balance
Having scored 119 runs while just giving up 11, Carroll County is off to a roaring 13-0 start after winning the 4A state title last season. And while most people naturally think of sophomore phenom Sydney Nester, the Cavaliers are anything but a one-person team.
Certainly, Nester has been absolutely dominating on the mound, striking out 142 batters while walking just 10 in 62.1 innings of work. The N.C. State commit has been equally as incredible at the plate. Her ridiculous .683 batting average (28-for-41) led the Timesland by a full 64 points as of Friday. And her 23 RBIs were third best in the Timesland as of this publication.
And while Nester appears destined to challenge a handful of state records, she has gotten plenty of help from her friends along the way. In fact, Carroll County is nearly hitting .400 as a team, batting .396 (159-of-402) through 13 games. Two Cavaliers are batting over .500, five are above .400, and eight of the team’s starting nine are hitting better than .350. Not bad for a team that struggled at the plate to start the season.
Leadoff batter Kyndall Hiatt is hitting at a smoking-hot .510 clip, good enough for 15th best in the Timesland. Hitting second in the lineup is Gracie Davidson and her .457 batting average. The two have combined to score 41 runs as Nester and her out-of-this-world .683 batting average follow at the three-spot in the lineup. Batting clean-up is sophomore Katie McKenzie, who has caught fire of late and is currently tied for 11th best in the Timesland with 18 RBIs. She’s batting .395 for the season.
Batting fifth and sixth are Caitlin Horton and Emily Cook. Horton is currently hitting at a .421 rate with 9 RBIs, while Cook is hitting .405 with a home run and 13 RBIs. It’s a no-win situation for opposing pitchers.
“Our one through six hitters are batting over .400 or close to it. Kayla Robinson is hitting .385 and Jeannie Utt is hitting .351 and they are batting seventh and eighth,” Carroll County head coach Rick Nester said. “We’ve had a couple of teams try to pitch around Sydney, trying to get her to chase bad pitches off the plate, and she’s done a good job of letting them go. But after her it’s who do you want to face?”
Pitching to McKenzie is not a great option. A member of Carroll’s JV team last year, McKenzie is killing the ball now, including a 5-RBI game earlier this year against Hidden Valley. Just a sophomore, she has quickly moved up from the sixth spot in the batting order to the coveted clean-up spot.
“She was batting sixth, but she was knocking out doubles after doubles so we moved her to four,” Nester said. “Then you have Cook and Horton after her that are both hitting over .400. Horton is over 100 points higher than she was last year. She is killing the ball. So which girl do you want to face as the other team? If they walk Syd, the girls behind her will knock the runs in. We are doing a great job at the plate.”
While Nester’s exploits on the mound are no shock, it’s amazing what the team is accomplishing at the plate. Last year’s state championship squad scored 256 runs, which according to the VHSL record book would be the fourth-highest total in Virginia history. But Carroll lost an incredible senior class from that team that included two all-state players in Tiffanie Moore and Cheyenne Strickland, and two first-team all-conference selections in Hannah Dalton and Sydney Childress. All four hit over or near .400 and provided plenty of offense that appeared impossible to replace.
“Losing the four seniors last year, three of which batted in the top four spots, we were not sure who would fill those spots. That has been answered with Kyndall at leadoff batting over .500 and Gracie batting second in the spot with the same or better numbers. And Syd has been phenomenal in the three spot where Cheyenne was last year,” Nester said. “We were concerned at the beginning of the year. There were several games we didn’t score a lot of runs, but we won with Syd dominating on the mound and the defense behind her.”
Others are filling their roles on the team nicely. Senior Morgan Tompkins is hitting last in the lineup, but still batting .275. She’s also made some incredible plays defensively in center field, where she has replaced the speedy Moore.
“She hit a double off the fence at Christiansburg the other night I thought was going to be a homer. A lot of times we have used her to bunt,” Nester said. “She made a catch against Cave Spring they hit short of the fence and she ran back and made the catch. She made an over-the-shoulder catch deep in the outfield against Christiansburg.”
Freshman Laken Crockett made such an impression in a scrimmage against Patrick County’s top varsity pitcher, she was bumped up to varsity, where she plays in a designated player role as a pinch-hitter and courtesy runner. She’s also started some games at third base. Junior Jena Alley has played a big role as a pinch-hitter as she’s driven in three runs. Sophomore Alexis Meredith has been the team’s flex player – starting every game in left field or third base, but not baatting.
“She’s been a defensive player for us and done very well,” Nester said.
And then there’s Sydney Nester. Last season, Nester’s 222 strikeouts were the second-most in VHSL history during the 43-foot mound era. She’s on pace to surpass last year’s total as she has whiffed 142 batters this season in just 62.1 innings of work.
Her current rate of 16 strikeouts per seven innings would break Caitlin Delahaba’s state record of 15.8 in 2008, and obliterate Jailyn Ford’s mark of 13.4 strikeouts per game since the mound was moved in 2011.
“She has 142 strikeouts and 10 walks. She’s dominating the game,” Rick Nester said. “She’s had numerous one-hit game this year that if they make contact as hard as she throws, the ball is going to jump.”
So how do you keep a team motivated that has already won the state championship and is currently beating teams by an average of more than 8.2 runs per game?
“They are the defending state champs and every team we play wants to knock them off. If gives everybody motivation to come after us, and I think that is motivating the girls,” Rick Nester said. “They don’t want to let anybody do that. I am not having to say too much to them about motivation and getting up.”
With playoff seeding based on winning percentage this year, Nester said the team realizes one loss could knock it out of the top spot in the conference tournament. This year, teams must at least reach the conference championship game to advance to regional action.
“We are having a good regular season right now, but if we don’t make it to the finals of the conference our season is over,” he said. “That is huge. We could go into conference undefeated, but if we lost that first game we are done. That’s another big motivator for us.”
By talking to Sydney Nester, you quickly realize that she is a very respectable young woman, but one who is also supremely confident in her skills on the mound. And who can blame her? Since arriving on the scene as a ninth grader last year, she is now 29-0 for her career with an unbelievable ERA of 0.73. During that time she has stuck out 364 batters and walked just 34.
Much like the team, you have to wonder what keeps a player motivated who won a state title and was named 4A Player of the Year as a freshman, all before committing to N.C. State over the summer?
“What keeps me motivated is I like to strive for perfection and I love the feeling of being a winner. When I get that feeling, it’s like a rush,” Nester said. “I love the feeling of greatness, the feeling of accomplishment. Just the feeling of knowing you are doing something right feels pretty good.”
It’s hard to imagine a player improving on the season Nester had last year, but so far she is doing just that. Looking at the statistical leaders in the Timesland is almost comical. Nester’s 0.22 ERA is almost an entire run better than the next closest in the newspaper’s coverage area (Liberty’s Kasey Carr currently has a 1.12 ERA). Her 142 strikeouts are 43 more than anyone else in the Timesland.
She said her improvement has come through better conditioning and putting more spin on her pitches this year. In particular, she said her riseball wasn’t very effective last year, but this year that pitch and her change-up have been her two best weapons. As far as her jaw-dropping .683 batting average, she said she’s put extra focus on her offensive game.
“I have been focusing on seeing the ball and I have just been trying to help my team and myself at the plate,” she said. “I’ve also tried to work more on situational hitting, trying to hit to the opposite field more.”
While Carroll struggled early on this season replacing its highly-talented senior class, Nester said she knew the 2016 team would be just fine.
“Those seniors contributed a ton offensively and defensively, but I had high expectations for the girls coming up, our sophomore class. Katie McKenzie, especially, has done a heck of a job hitting clean-up,” Sydney Nester said. “We did start off very rough offensively, but I think we put in the reps and a lot of hard work to get better. It just took us a little bit of time to get used to live pitching and getting back in the grove.”
And while Nester is obviously the straw that stirs the drink for Carroll County, she says none of her success would be possible without the help of her teammates.
“I honestly wouldn’t be where I am right now without the team behind me. They all make look better,” Nester said. “My catchers make me look better, and defensively the team makes the plays, which makes me look better. And we are scoring a ton of runs, so the whole team is doing a super job. I am not the great pitcher I am without the team behind me.”
Allen Worrell can be reached at (276) 779-4062 or on Twitter@AWorrellTCN