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Prep Softball: Carson ready for regional

By Mike London
mike.london@salisburypost.com

CHINA GROVE — Carson’s softball team plays Game 1 of the best-of-three 3A West championship series tonight at 6 p.m. in Taylorsville against Alexander Central.

Alexander Central is one of the traditional powers in North Carolina softball, winning 4A fast-pitch state titles in 1996, 2009, 2011, 2013 and 2014 and setting the NCHSAA record with 95 consecutive wins just a few years ago.

Of course, that daunting history doesn’t mean a whole lot to Carson (20-6), which had never gotten past the second round of the playoffs until this year.

This is not a nervous group. The older players giggle a lot and are a loose bunch. They take their cue from pitcher Rylie Stewart, who is having the time of her life on this playoff run.

The freshmen? They’re not all that nervous, either. Some of them won the Little League World Series in 2015 when they were just kids, so they’ve been on bigger stages than the state playoffs. They’ve been on national television.

“I really couldn’t see any difference in them today,” Carson’s second-year coach Charissa Duncan said. “They haven’t changed any. Maybe it will be different, maybe they’ll get nervous once we get off that bus at Alexander Central because we haven’t been on the road yet in the playoffs, but I really think we’ll be fine.”

The school record for wins at Carson was a modest 17 prior to this season. Coming off a 15-12 season, this team was expected to be decent, was expected to compete for second place in the North Piedmont Conference. Carson was just another team for much of the season, losing its first NPC meetings with South Iredell and West Rowan and getting wiped out by South Piedmont Conference champ Central Cabarrus, 15-4, on April 14. Carson was 9-6 after that loss.

The turning point for the Cougars was back-to-back wins against South Iredell and West Rowan, especially the 2-0 win at West on April 28 that moved Carson into a tie for first place in the NPC with the Falcons.

“That game at West Rowan was the tipping point,” Duncan said. “We’ve been a different team since then. We’ve played with the confidence that we can beat anyone.”

Carson hasn’t looked back since that game in Mount Ulla. Stewart has pitched really well and recently had a long streak of scoreless innings. The defense has tightened up. The hitters have provided more hits in clutch situations.

Stewart shut out West for the second time in the NPC tournament championship game, a victory that led to Carson getting a strong seed (N0. 4) for the state playoffs. That seed helped lead to a string of four straight home games in the playoffs, and Carson put 37 runs on the scoreboard. The toughest challenge was an 8-3 win against Marvin Ridge in the fourth round. Marvin Ridge had knocked off top-seeded Parkwood.

Carson’s winning streak now has reached 11 games.

“It’s been a lot of fun for the coaches and the girls,” Duncan said. “Obviously, no one could have expected us to do what we’ve done. Honestly, I didn’t expect it.”

It’s been easy to underestimate Carson, but the addition of freshman second baseman Kary Hales (.494) and freshman first baseman Liza Simmerson (.426) dramatically changed the lineup. They can hit and defend. They bat 4 and 5 and they’ve combined for 21 doubles and 36 RBIs.

Center fielder Maci Cooper and right fielder Katelyn McGee hit at the top of the lineup and have been strong defensively. No. 3 hitter Katie Jewell  is the shortstop and smacks line drives all over the place. She’s batting .440 with four homers and a team-high 26 RBIs.

Stewart bats sixth and is batting .351 with 15 RBIs.

Kaitlyn Honeycutt, the DP, and left fielder Haley Howerton give Carson power at the bottom of the lineup. They’ve combined for 38 RBIs. Third baseman Jessica Freeze, who is headed to Greensboro College along with Stewart, is batting .333 out of the No. 9 spot in the lineup and has played outstanding defense. Catcher Skyler Stewart is not usually in the batting lineup but is a top-notch defender.

Stewart is 16-6 and has an ERA of 1.52. She didn’t pitch the easy games against Statesville or her stats would be even better. She’s thrown 17 complete games, eight shutouts and a no-hitter. Jewell is Carson’s second pitcher and is capable, but Carson hasn’t needed relief in a long time.

Third-seeded Alexander Central (24-5) has a powerful offense and is hitting .421 as a team with 26 homers and 74 steals. Outfielder Lanie Goforth and shortstop Julie Gast are batting over. 500. Gast and pitcher Chesney Millsaps have hit seven homers each.

Alexander survived a couple of high-scoring games in the second and third rounds, topping South Iredell, 8-6, and Crest, 10-5. Then Alexander Central (also the Cougars) won a 1-0, nine-inning struggle with Cox Mill to get to this West championship series.

Carson’s team will leave school today at 2 p.m. for the trip to Taylorsville. They’ll make a stop, get some food and arrive at the ball field at about 4:30 to start preparing.

“We’ll just try to keep doing what we’ve been doing,” Duncan said. “No pressure.”

Game 2 will be on Thursday in China Grove at 6 p.m. If a third game is needed, it  would be played at Alexander Central on Friday or Saturday.

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