Senior Harkey in stretch run
By Mike London
West Rowan softball teams that won 91 games and two 3A state championships from 2001-04 included athletes who hit harder and ran faster than center fielder Blair Harkey, but she was blessed with rare gifts.
Above all, she had an urgent desperation not to lose. She described her goal anytime she walked on a softball field as “win or die trying.”
Four different players from West’s state-title teams were county players of the year. Harkey, whose contributions weren’t measurable by statistics, wasn’t among them, but she was good enough to be recruited by North Carolina and N.C. State, before joining the Wolfpack in the fall of 2004 for its second season of ACC softball.
“I was the first outfielder N.C. State ever recruited,” Harkey said. “That made me feel like I was wanted.”
N.C. State coach Lisa Navas recognized that Harkey got an instinctive, can’t-teach-it jump on every flyball.
As good an outfielder ó male or female ó as there’s been in the county in the last decade, Harkey was always moving in the right direction before metal intersected with ball. To be as good as she was, she must have worked very hard at it, but she also was born with something really special.
Navas also saw Harkey had a strong arm and the confidence to throw to any base in any situation. Several shocked runners who casually rounded first on routine singles against West found a tag waiting for them when they ambled back to the bag to celebrate their hit.
Harkey has enjoyed a fine career at N.C State. When she takes the field at noon today for a televised ACC tournament championship game against 17th-ranked Virginia Tech, she’ll be making her 246th start for the Wolfpack. That’s 10 shy of the school record.Harkey has set a school-record for sacrifice bunts with 45 ó 18 of them coming last year when she was usually batting second and 10 this season as the No. 9 hitter. Her batting averages usually hover in the .220s, but that’s not bad in the ACC. The Wolfpack hit .233 as a team in the regular season.
“At the plate, I do what I can, but my glove is why I’m out there,” Harkey said. “I’m out there to make catches.”
N.C. State fans have watched her make them ó diving, running, jumping ó since her first day on the job.
“I came to Raleigh with Shanna Smith (N.C. State’s power-hitting shortstop),” Harkey said. “It was an adjustment, but we did what we had to do to play right from the start.”
In her Wolfpack debut ó Feb. 4, 2005, in a tournament at Mississippi State ó she reached above her head to make a running catch that saved the game.
“That catch made me feel like I belonged,” Harkey said.
Her sophomore year was both the best and toughest of times.
N.C. State was loaded with talent and won the school’s first ACC regular-season and tournament championships with a 50-21 record. Harkey started 61 games in center field and made a phenomenal catch that helped eliminate UNC in a tournament semifinal, but she was often the player for whom the designated player batted.
“That team was a once-in-a-lifetime thing, and I still wear my championship ring,” Harkey said. “I knew my role on that team was defense, but I’m a little aggressive so I was determined that I was gonna hit. I got in the cages every chance I got.”
The blisters paid off. She’s been in the lineup her last two seasons, and she’s provided clutch hits for the Wolfpack as a senior.
Both her triples this season were huge. They decided a 2-1 victory against Georgia State in March and a 1-0 win at Charlotte in April that was witnessed by a host of family members.
Last Feb. 27, Harkey recorded the first RBI in N.C. State’s new Dail Stadium when she knocked in a run against UNC Greensboro in the fifth inning.
“I’ve got great memories of Walnut Creek (site of the high school state championships and the Wolfpack’s home prior to this season), but our new place is awesome,” Harkey said. “It’s one of the most beautiful places anywhere.”
Harkey’s career got started on another softball field when she was 8 years old. This one was in the backyard of Ray Graham, who started working with Harkey and many of her future teammates at West when she was 8 years old.
“Ray coached me 10 years and still comes to see my games,” Harkey said. “I’ve had a wonderful four years at State, and I really owe it all to him. He got me started.”
Harkey and her older sister, Brittany watched their father, Randy, play softball. That sparked their interest in sports. Brittany, who played third base on West’s championship teams, played four years at Queens and is now a grad student at N.C. State and one of Blair’s roommates.
Blair’s degree is in biological sciences, and her first choice for employment is the N.C. Research Campus in Kannapolis.
But there’s still a little softball left to play. N.C. State entered the ACC tournament in College Park, Md., as a No. 6 seed and Harkey’s career was supposed to be over by now, but the Wolfpack (31-26) surprised Georgia Tech 1-0 on Thursday, watched rain pour down on Friday, then shocked No. 13 UNC 1-0 on Saturday.
The winner of today’s championship game earns an automatic bid to the NCAA tournament. Harkey will be in center field for the Wolfpack, and she’ll win or die trying.
Contact Mike London at 704-797-4259 or email@example.com.