Prep Softball: Carson softball looks to build off winning season
By Mike London
LAST SEASON: 15-12 overall, 9-9 South Piedmont Conference (5th place)
THIS SEASON: 6-team North Piedmont Conference
COACH: Charissa Duncan (2nd season, 16-12)
CHINA GROVE — The softball team with the most wins in Rowan County in 2017?
That would be Carson.
That might be surprising news, but the Cougars quietly put together a 15-12 season in Charissa Duncan’s first year as head coach. That record included a 9-9 mark in the South Piedmont Conference, a deep and competitive league.
The Cougars lost in the first round of the 3A state playoffs, but it still was the best season for the Cougars since Sydney Grkman was walloping a lot of balls over the fence in 2013.
The Cougars lost several good players, including all-county center fielder Madison Barnhardt, who hit .410, and two-time all-county infielder/catcher Brie Bauer, who had six doubles and 13 RBIs.
The good news is the Cougars also return proven players led by all-county picks Rylie Stewart, their ace pitcher, and shortstop Katie Jewell, who batted .301 and drove in a team-high 18 runs.
“We’ve still got some work to do in a lot of areas,” Duncan said. “But I think we can be really good defensively. That should be our strong point.”
Carson has only played one game so far — Friday’s 6-1 win against Robinson.
There have been several rainouts and postponements, but the adverse weather may have been a blessing in disguise. It gave Duncan a chance to see some of the players practice who reported for work after a strong basketball season.
Carson has players from those Rowan Little League teams that energized softball all over the county with multiple trips to the World Series. Freshmen Kary Hales, Elllie Wilhelm, Tate Barger and Liza Simmerson are on the Carson roster and are names already familiar to softball fans. Hales already has impacted Carson athletics in volleyball, while Wilhelm did some great things in basketball.
Any Carson success this year has to start in the circle with Stewart, a senior who accounted for 10 of Carson’s wins last season. She had a 2.69 ERA and 84 strikeouts.
Duncan expects sophomore Skyler Smith to handle most of the catching duties.
Sophomore Maci Cooper, a .359 hitter with speed, made a number of highlight-reel catches last season and will anchor Carson’s outfield.
Jewell, who has home-run power, is primarily a shortstop on defense and provides stability for Carson’s infield.
Third baseman Jess Freeze had 11 RBIs last season.
Stewart is also an exceptional hitter. She batted .368 with 14 RBIs and can play a lot of positions.
The other experienced players on the roster are Haley Howerton, Kaitlyn Stout and Kaitlyn Honeycutt. Transfer Katelyn McGee (from West Rowan) will be in the lineup somewhere. Duncan has been impressed by Sierra Ratliff and Madison Anderson, and Carson should get a major boost from that strong freshman class.
“We’re still not sure exactly who is going to play where,” Duncan said. “We’ve got a whole lot of second basemen.”
Carson’s three rivals are East Rowan, West Rowan and South Rowan. The Cougars beat South three times last season but lost to East twice. Carson was swept by West during the regular season but won against the Falcons in the conference tournament. The Rowan teams will see even more of each other than usual this season with a Civitan Easter tournament that will include East, West, South and Carson (plus Mooresville, Cox Mill, Central Cabarrus and Mount Pleasant) planned for Salisbury Community Park.
West Rowan is the favorite in the six-team North Piedmont Conference this season, but if Stewart keeps pitching the way she did Friday, Carson has a chance to contend in the NPC and do well in the playoffs.
“We’re playing a tough schedule to prepare for conference,” Duncan said. “You want to compete with the best. Playing non-conference teams like Central Cabarrus, Cox Mill and A.L. Brown is going to make us better.”