Prep softball: East preview
By Mike London
GRANITE QUARRY — Ten years from now, tiny East Rowan senior Kayla Kirk will be a nurse who’s going to have a heck of a time convincing her patients she was a softball sensation back in the day.
Kirk is a pesky, blonde mosquito, who has bitten a lot of East’s opponents the last four seasons. Her range in center field, her speed on the bases and her ability to slap and bunt have made her a perennial all-county player. She was voted to the all-district team in 2009 and to the North Carolina Softball Coaches Association All-State team in 2010.
East’s No. 2 hitter, Kirk credits East coach Mike Waddell for her development into a standout player.
“I’ve played softball since I was 6, but I was just a right-handed batter who was always popping up until I was a freshman,” Kirk said. “Waddell said I needed to make a switch because I was fast. He got me batting left-handed and slapping.”
A high percentage of East’s runs, especially in tight games, come when leadoff batter Ericka Nesbitt and Kirk get on base. Those two are basically half of a 4×100 relay team for opponents to worry about and they put tremendous pressure on any defense.
East (24-2) takes on Crest (23-3) in the first round of the 3A state tournament tonight in a 6 p.m. game at Raleigh’s Walnut Creek Complex.
The winner gets a plaque as Western Regional champion. More important, the winner will stay undefeated in the double-elimination event.
East will play a second game tonight at 8:30 against either Southern Vance or Greenville D.H. Conley, the Eastern representatives.
Action concludes Saturday, with the losers bracket final, a championship game, and a second championship game, if necessary.
Ideally, East will go 3-0 and come home as state champion. But it’s also conceivable East will have to play twice Friday and three times on Saturday — five games in less than 24 hours.
In the heat, that’s a lot to ask of all the players, especially catcher Bobbi Thomas and pitcher Chelsea White.
Throwing a softball underhanded is a natural motion and puts limited wear and tear on arms, but that many games in so short a period of time can put serious strain on legs.
Crest is a familiar opponent. East beat the green-and-gold Chargers from Boiling Springs in the Final Four’s first round in 2010 but lost to Crest the following day in an elimination battle.
Crest has a different pitcher now — sophomore Emily Kale. The offensive standouts for the Chargers are catcher Amanda Baker, who is hitting close to .500, and center fielder Dakota Keller, a .400 hitter with 10 home runs.
The Mustangs dropped a 1-0 game to 2A power Central Davidson early and lost in the finals of the NPC tournament to North Iredell, but the Mustangs are playing at their peak now, especially defensively. White, who also swings a powerful bat and fields her position superbly, is simply one of the best in county history. She has allowed just one run in four playoff games, three against quality opponents.
East has won four straight NPC championships and put up an 86-12 record since Waddell’s senior class of Kirk, shortstop Nesbitt, White, first baseman Meagan Kluttz and injured third baseman Mallory Drew arrived on campus as freshmen. All five are serving as captains this season, although Drew has missed the whole year with a broken leg.
This is the Mustangs’ second straight trip to the Final Four. They’ll return to Raleigh older, wiser — and healthier. Seven of the girls who started in Raleigh in 2010 will be back on the field, and Drew will be in the dugout.
Last year’s left fielder Steffi Sides has filled in well for Drew at third base. Courtney Lyerly now plays a solid left field as the flex, and Ally Mills has done well as the designated player who bats in Lyerly’s spot in the lineup.
Other starters are right fielder Jesse Rummage and second baseman (and No. 2 pitcher) Sydney Poole, sophomores with a year of Final Four experience.
“We’re very excited to be going back, but we won’t be nearly as nervous as we were last year,” Kirk said. “We’ve got some mental confidence after beating North Davidson (East handed the 4A Black Knights their only loss), and we know if we play like that, we can beat anyone. The other thing is Chelsea wasn’t feeling well when we went to states last year, but she’s healthy now. We’re all healthy now.”
Well, except for Drew, and she’s getting closer. Drew wore her cleats for the fourth-round playoff game against North Iredell and took batting practice Wednesday, but her role in Raleigh is expected to be purely inspirational.
“We all want to win it, and we’d especially like to win it for Mallory,” Kirk said.
While White is headed to Elon and Nesbitt to Campbell, this weekend will mark the end of Kirk’s fine career.
She’s elected to get started with her nursing studies this fall at Rowan-Cabarrus Community College and won’t be playing college softball.
“I’ll save a little money,” Kirk said with a laugh. “But I really will miss softball. All five of us seniors are going to miss school ball.”
White said she’s ready for the final challenge of her prep career on the sport’s biggest stage.
“It’s a whole different feeling this time,” she said quietly. “This time I’m healthy.”
Win or lose, it’s going to be an emotional moment for Waddell when he hands White the ball for the last time.
“I never really thought about it being our seniors’ last game if we lost in the playoffs,” he said. “It’s just been one game at a time for us this whole season. It does feel good to know that Chelsea will be in the circle for our next one.”