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West softball ready

By Mike London
Salisbury Post
MOUNT ULLA ó With one out in the top of the seventh inning, West Rowan’s softball team trailed Central Cabarrus 5-4 last week.
Brooke Taylor was on third base. Alex Mills was at second. Slugging shortstop Stacie Raney was the plate.
Intentionally walking Raney, a four-year starter who launched two home runs in the same inning earlier this season, seemed like the thing to do, and that was Central’s plan.
“I saw the catcher smile at me and stand up, and I was thinking, ‘Gosh, this is B.S.’ ” said Raney, who watched the first two pitches sail too far outside to reach.
The third pitch also was way outside, but Raney, who edged closer to the plate, swung anyway. The next pitch was out there too. She fouled it off to make the count 2-2.
“I saw the catcher squatting back down and I said to myself, hey, they’re going to try to outthink Stacie,” Mills said. “The next second ó well, there it went.”
Raney’s three-run homer went way out to right-center and gave West a 7-5 lead. The Falcons held on in the bottom of the seventh for a victory over the fourth-ranked team in 4A. In some respects, it was West’s biggest in years.
“Everyone said that pitch was really off the plate, but I just swung and it went out,” Raney said. “We wanted to beat them bad. I didn’t think we could do it.”
The 3A softball playoffs open today, and the Falcons are on the road in Hickory at St. Stephens (20-4-1) at 4:30 p.m. St. Stephens is a No. 2 seed and ranked 10th in 3A.
West is playing its first-round playoff game on the road for the first time since it traveled to North Davidson in 2001.
West didn’t win the NPC this season for the first time since 2002, but it finished tied for second, one game behind East Rowan, and its 17-3 record is something most programs would die for.
“We’ve had a fun, relaxed year, a lot of laughing and smiling,” West coach Elizabeth Clarke said. “The Central game was so awesome, like the best game ever, and it should be a great confidence-builder for the playoffs. I think everyone’s exited.”
West has gotten used to being at home for the first round of the playoffs, but the results have been mixed.
In 2002 and 2003, West used a first-round home game as a springboard to state championships, but in 2004, 2006 and 2007 the Falcons were upset in the first round.
In 2005, when seniors Raney, Taylor and Erin Foster were starting as freshmen, West made a strong run and finished as state runner-up.
No official career softball stats are available for county teams, but either Raney or Foster probably holds the all-time homer record since schools switched to fast-pitch in the mid-1990s. Foster has hit a bunch of balls deep this season, although she couldn’t recall exactly how many.
Taylor, a third baseman who hit five homers, including two in the NPC tournament championship game when she was a freshman, has piled up steals and runs. She’s had two steals of home this season and at least a half-dozen in her career.
Clarke said Taylor and Foster specialize in “playing with other teams” on the bases and both can create havoc.
Taylor, Raney and Foster have played together since they were 8 and were on the Rowan Raptors club that finished second out of 56 teams in the 12-under World Series in Salem, Virginia in 2002.
“Softball’s been a lot of fun for a long time,” said Taylor, who is headed to Appalachian State. “But we all know the next time that we lose, it’s all over.”
Clarke doesn’t anticipate any of her five seniors playing college softball, although several obviously could. This is a special group for Clarke because her first year as West’s varsity coach coincided with the freshman year of Foster, Taylor, Raney, catcher Olivia Izze and left fielder Cindy Dickerson.
“The last four years there’s been a lot of learning experiences for all of us,” Clarke said. “They’ve grown up, and I’ve grown with them. It’s been a great group, very talented, but I think we’ve figured out the most important thing is just to enjoy softball. We’re 17-3, but we’ve also had fun. That’s the biggest thing.”
Clarke said Dickerson, who plans to room with Raney at Charlotte this fall, has had her best season with the bat and in the outfield. Clarke also had praise for Izze, who had to fill the catching gear left behind by Gina Loflin, a two-time county player of the year and one of the best receivers in county history.
Assistant coach Kristen Yost, a former catcher, has been a big help to Izze, who will attend Meredith this fall.
“Olivia keeps (sophomore pitcher) Sabrina Stephens settled down, and Sabrina’s done a great job,” Clarke said. “Teams are going to make contact on her, but when she hits her spots, they hit the ball where we’re playing them. Brooke has been the queen of third base, just eating balls up over there, and Erin’s been really good in center field.”
West lost early NPC games to East Rowan and Northwest Cabarrus, but it beat both in rematches. A loss to fourth-place West Iredell cost the Falcons a share of their seventh straight championship, but by beating Central, the West showed it’s still a team to watch in the playoffs.
“We’d never beaten Central in any of my four years,” Taylor said. “It was a great feeling, one of the best games I’ve been part of.”
Foster, who plans to go to Western Carolina, believes the unranked Falcons can take advantage of flying under the radar.
“My freshman year we were so young that no one expected anything much, but we went a long way,” she said. “This year, no one’s looking at us at all, but we can do good.”
As Central Cabarrus found out last week, West softball is still good. West’s senior class is 85-16 the past four years and has a chance to go out making some noise.
n
NOTES: East Rowan (17-3) is home today at 5 p.m. against Asheboro (8-10), the No. 4 seed from the Mid-Piedmont Conference. … Carson (11-10), the NPC’s No. 6 seed, is at Southwestern Randolph at 7 p.m. Mid-Piedmont No. 1 seed SWR (19-2-1) is the defending 3A champ.
nContact Mike London at 704-797-4259 or mlondon@salisburypost.com.

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