High school softball: Surging Falcons try to get over that third-round hurdle
Published 4:59 am Tuesday, May 16, 2023
By Mike London
MOUNT ULLA — When you get past the third round in the playoffs, you have permission to call it a run.
Getting past the third round is something West Rowan’s softball team hasn’t been able to do since 2005, so while the Falcons are almost always good, greatness has proven elusive.
Genuine playoff runs have proven elusive.
The third round was a stop sign for strong West teams in 2019 (Parkwood) and 2021 (North Buncombe).
Maybe this is the year the Falcons are great for coach Jimmy Greene. It would be an appropriate time for it, on the 20th anniversary of the second straight softball state championship for West, still the only Rowan school that has won a state title in the sport.
The pieces are in all place in Mount Ulla. There’s a once-in-a-generation slugger in Emma Clarke, a super lead-off hitter in Ashlee Ennis, an excellent pitcher in Arabelle Shulenberger, and an experienced supporting cast that can get it done even on the days when Clarke spends her time trotting to first base with intentional walks.
West is 20-3-1, but even that impressive record is misleading. Two losses occurred when Shulenberger (15-1, 1.64 ERA) was sidelined.
The other loss came early. Carson jumped on the Falcons on March 14 and beat them fair and square, but once the teams settled in for the long season, West’s lineup locked in and got steadily deeper. West beat Carson 8-1 in April and battered the Cougars 10-0 in the rubber match in the conference tournament.
Carson is very good — the Cougars are still playing— but those scores give an idea of how good West can be. The Falcons have won their last 15.
West plays East Lincoln in Mount Ulla on Tuesday night. Third round. It’s the 4 vs. 5 game in the 3A West bracket.
First pitch will be at 7 p.m., the later than normal start due to AP testing at East Lincoln.
East Lincoln (19-1) has won 13 in a row and hasn’t lost since March 24. That’s when East Lincoln got chain-sawed 12-3 by Fred T.Foard.
Fred T.Foard is the team West Rowan wiped out 14-1 in Round 2 of these playoffs.
But comparing scores can be misleading. West lost a non-conference, Shulenberger-less game to North Iredell. East Lincoln creamed North Iredell 10-0 and 17-2.
As far as players to watch, well, there’s Clarke, assuming she gets a chance to swing a few times. She has 10 homers and 32 RBIs in just 57 official at-bats. She’s batting .579 with an on-base percentage of .694. She’s made just 24 outs all season.
A junior committed to Tennessee, Clarke has stolen 22 bases and plays a wicked shortstop, so she’s more than just a power hitter.
Ennis’ plan is to be just a normal student at UNC, but she could play college volleyball or softball. She’s batting .482 with 43 runs and 28 steals and is the person who gets on base in front of Clarke, who bats second in the lineup. Ennis’ defense in center field has been at least as good as her offense.
Catcher Brooke Kennerly, Appalachian State signee, hits behind Clarke, so she’s always critical. If Clarke walks four times, she’ll get multiple chances to decide the game. She is batting .417 with 29 RBIs.
There’s more. EA Nance, Karsen Simpson and Riley Haggas all have more than 20 RBIs.
Madelyn VonCanon (left) and Taylor Keller (right) have done their share offensively, while being exceptional outfielders.
With no easy outs in the lineup, West is batting .382 as a team, with 27 homers.
East Lincoln has put up very similar offensive numbers, a .395 team average and 30 homers.
East Lincoln slugger Betsy Eatmon has been awesome for the Denver-based Mustangs. She has walloped 13 homers and is batting .523.
East Lincoln pitcher Leah Correll is 16-1 with a 1.63 ERA, almost identical numbers to Shulenberger’s.
Correll has 139 strikeouts. East Lincoln has allowed only one run in two playoff wins.
West Rowan is almost always in the state playoffs. Counting this year’s two wins, West is 34-22 all-time in fast-pitch softball playoff games, while East Lincoln is 14-18.
Next for the winner is No. 1 Enka or No. 24 Tuscola.