Over the past three seasons, Carroll County’s softball team has amassed an incredible record of 66 wins against just three losses.
The Cavaliers have lost just one game each of those three seasons, and each of those losses have much in common. All have come in the regional playoffs, two of them have been in extra innings, and Carroll scored a total of just four runs combined in the three defeats.
In 2015, the Lady Cavs lost 2-0 to Woodgrove in the regional final before going on to win the state championship. But the last two seasons have ended with Carroll bowing out one game before qualifying for the state tournament – falling 2-1 in 9 innings to Fauquier County in 2016 and 4-3 in 12 innings to Freedom last year, with both losses coming in the regional semifinals. Needless to say, increased run production has been the main focus of the offseason.
“Regardless of our defense, if we are not able to score runs, then it puts pressure on everybody out there. All it takes to get beat is to get one bad hop or one misplayed ball, poor luck on the defensive side,” Carroll County head coach Rick Nester said. “We haven’t had that luxury of the offense we would have liked to have. This group has spent hours and hours on hitting every time we are out. We have spent more time on that than anything else. Hopefully that will help us increase our run production. We are going to have to have some of the younger girls step up in their roles this year but we have had that happen each year.”
Fortunately, the Cavaliers have several returning starters, including two all-region selections and two more All-Conference 24 picks. Back from last year’s team are all-region second-teamers Emily Cook and Laken Crockett, as well as honorable mention selection Katie McKenzie. McKenzie was first-team all-conference last year and fellow senior Alexis Meredith, an honorable mention all-conference standout, also returns.
A senior first baseman, Cook came up with big hits in timely moments many times for Carroll in 2017. She led the team in hitting (.423) and hits (30) and was tied for second in home runs (3) and was second on the team in RBIs (19), doubles (7), runs scored (16) and slugging percentage (.676). She also was third on the team in on-base percentage (.462). This year, Cook will be counted on at the plate and at the mound, where she is expected to be the Cavaliers’ number one pitcher.
“Emily will be a four-year starter for us and she has always batted in the three or four spot for us. She hits the ball with power and she was our best offensive player last year,” Nester said. “She will be pitching and playing first base. She has worked extremely hard in the offseason, spent a lot of time in conditioning with her strength and pitching. Our plan is her going to the mound taking most of the innings with Katie McKenzie and Chloe Easter taking most of the other pitching duties for us.”
A junior, Crockett earned all-conference and all-region honors after a stellar 2017 season, especially defensively. Crockett made just five errors in 18 games at third base. She also was a major contributor at the plate, finishing first on the team in singles (21), third in walks (7) and runs (15), and fourth in hits (22). Crockett also was fifth on the team in on-base percentage (.431) and sixth in batting average (.355).
“She is a three-year starter for us and she did an outstanding job at third base for us and she also caught some, too. She will be batting probably in the four or five spot,” Nester said. “She is a line-drive type hitter, doesn’t hit very many fly balls. She has been a solid batter for us and has been one who improved over 100 points from her freshman to sophomore year. She has put in a lot of time in the weight room beyond what we have done. She and Alexis and Emily and Katie, we have had multiple girls going on their own doing additional time. This group is probably working harder than any group we have had to get stronger and better.”
While she primarily spent her time at third base last year, Crockett did catch a few games for the Cavaliers. This season, she is expected to play several infield positions.
“Laken this year will catch and probably play first and third depending on who is pitching. On our travel team she has been playing all three during the summer,” Nester said. “We talked about it last year about working first and third if she was able to with the travel team. Luckily they needed that also and she has gotten plenty of time at all three positions and can play all three very well.”
Last season, McKenzie earned first-team all-conference and honorable mention all-region accolades after finishing third on the team in both batting average (.362) and home runs (two). She also was second on the team in on-base percentage (.464) and drove in 11 runs, scored 10, and had 21 hits with three doubles and a .517 slugging percentage. With her reliable bat, she is being looked at to hit at the number two spot in the lineup along with Abi Easter. An outfielder last year, McKenzie will most likely play exclusively in the infield for her senior season.
“She will be at third base and pitching most of the time. She had played it before we moved her to the outfield,” Nester said. “We will also be looking at her to help with pitching. She did well in the fall. And she pitched (March 10 in a scrimmage) and did a very good job. She only gave up one hit to Patrick County.”
Meredith was named honorable mention all-conference after making just two errors last year at shortstop. She had the fourth-highest total of hits for Carroll with 22. She also batted .310, scored 12 runs, and had two doubles and 8 RBIs.
“This will be her third year starting at shortstop. She has improved every year defensively and with her arm strength. She’s as good as any we have had at that position,” Nester said. “Her offensive production also increased last year. She’s been hitting the ball solid during the offseason for us. Last year she batted in the two spot for us and we asked her to bunt often. She does a very good job of bunting, but we are looking at her leading off this year and setting the table for us.”
Also returning will be three-year starter and senior Chloe Easter. She will primarily play in right field for Carroll, but will also see plenty of time on the mound.
“We are also looking at her bat to help us,” Nester said. “She has improved each year she has been with us. Her numbers have continued to increase.”
Senior Kayleigh Webb is one of the team’s speedier players. Webb will primarily play second base, but she can also play in the outfield and benefit the Cavs in a variety of ways.
“Batting-wise she has improved a great deal during the offseason,” Nester said. “If she is not on the field, last year she ran for us a lot. She is one of our faster players and another role she can help us with if she is by pinch-running. She can help us multiple ways.”
Junior Taylor Spangler will be back as a starter for the second straight year in the outfield. Nester said Spangler did an excellent job defensively for the Cavs a year ago. He expects her bat to be an added strength as well.
“She was batting in the seven, eight or nine spot for us last year, but this year we are hoping to have her in the five or six spot with her strength and improvement at the plate,” Nester said. “We are counting on her as one that will be that next girl up that can help us out at the plate. She has good strength, good hands, bunts well, has knowledge of the game and does a very good job.”
Junior Morgan Tate is up from the JV team. She pitched quite a bit for the junior varsity squad last year and will also play first base for the Cavaliers.
“She hit the ball very well with the JVs and we are hoping that will carry over on the varsity level,” Nester said. “We are hoping she will be able to step in and fill one of those roles as a big bat at the plate.”
Hannah Snow is another junior up from the JV team. She adds another layer of diversity to the Carroll roster as she can play outfield, first base and third base. Makayla Webb is a junior outfielder also up from the JV squad. She can play both left and right field.
“During the offseason she has worked as hard as any of the underclassmen we have got,” Nester said. “She put in a lot of time to get better.”
Sophomore Hannah Spangler started at center field for the Carroll JVs last year. She will move up to varsity in 2018 and either play in center or left field.
“She had had some good at bats in some of our scrimmages. She battled hard at the plate off some really good pitching,” Nester said. “She is one of our better bunters. She does a very good job of putting the ball down and we are expecting a lot of good things from her.”
Abi Easter is another player up from the JV team that is expected to make a huge impact. Last season, she played multiple positions on the JV squad and she is being looked at as a second or third baseman for the varsity team.
“We will be depending on her offensive production. She is very solid defensively. She has a very good bat and very good instincts of the game. She is just a ball player,” Nester said. “She has worked hard and is pushing everybody around her to be better. She can help us defensively, and speed-wise she is one of the faster girls on the team. You just watch her on the basketball court, the competitive nature of the girl, she is going to compete. She doesn’t accept losing. That is the type you want on the field and we have several of them like that.”
Logan Johnson is the lone freshman on Carroll’s varsity team to start the season. The catcher for the JV squad last year, Johnson brings several skills to the varsity team.
“She does work some in the infield but she is mainly a catcher. She has a good bat and has hit the ball well for us during the fall against some of the better pitching we have faced,” Nester said. “Auburn, in particular, has a very good team and Logan hit the ball better against them as anybody on our team. She is another girl that has speed and she will be one of the faster girls on the team.”
While Carroll County has a lot of returning talent, there will still be a lot of unanswered questions to begin the season as the Cavaliers begin play in the Three Rivers District after four seasons in the River Ridge District. The Cavaliers have not lost a regular season game in the past three years, but will see many unfamiliar faces in 2018.
“The only team we have played that we have any idea about is Floyd. All these other teams are brand new to us. We have not seen them at any time,” Nester said. “You just go by what you have seen in the past. Glenvar has been solid year in and year out. James River has been solid year in and year out. Alleghany and Giles and Radford, we haven’t played them before so we don’t know what to expect. Some of those teams will be very strong and competitive and it will take some time playing them and common opponents to have an idea of what it will be like.”
Allen Worrell can be reached at (276) 779-4062 or on Twitter@AWorrellTCN