You may have noticed over the last couple of weeks that I’ve been churning out stories on all of the Kanawha Valley softball teams, taking a look at what could have been and what will be a year from now.
If I haven’t gotten to your team in Kanawha or Putnam County, don’t worry, I will.
But as chairman of the state sportswriters softball committee over the past few years, I’ve had the opportunity to have a more statewide view on the sport, and there were plenty of players outside of the Kanawha Valley that I was thoroughly looking forward to getting a first or another look at this season.
Here are some of those players, all of whom were All-State first-team selections a year ago.
Carly Cooper, Petersburg: The best pitching performance turned in during the Class AA state tournament a year ago likely wasn’t from Herbert Hoover’s Delani Buckner but from Cooper, who mowed down Nitro in the team’s opening game to the tune of a two-hit, 15-strikeout shutout. We were robbed of seeing Cooper and Buckner square off in the championship game as Cooper was forced out of the circle with blisters on her throwing hand. Now with both of them seniors, we will never see it. With six seniors and plenty of big-game experience, the Vikings may arguably have been Hoover’s biggest obstacle en route to a third straight state championship.
Emily Allen, Parkersburg: Simply put, Allen has the best arm I’ve seen from the catcher’s position in 12 years of covering prep sports. Already committed to North Carolina State, Allen allowed just two successful base stealers a year ago all while hitting .492 with six home runs. The Big Reds are a program on the rise with 15 sophomores and freshmen on the roster a year ago, and it would have been fun to see how far Parkersburg had come with another year of development.
Autumn Thompson, Sherman: Speaking of senior pitchers and state tournament success, it’s a shame Thompson didn’t get her swan song as well. The lefty chucked a shutout of her own in an 8-0 win over Wheeling Central in the Class A title game a year ago, giving Sherman its first state championship in school history. The Tide would have entered this season with just three seniors, but with Thompson in the circle, Sherman was likely going to be squarely in any game it played.
Gracie Hightower, Cabell Midland: In my opinion, Hightower was the best outfielder returning in the state this season. Her speed allowed her to cover some serious ground defensively and gave her an edge offensively, especially when slap hitting. She hit .486 and scored 46 runs a year ago from the second spot in the lineup and likely would’ve moved to leadoff this season. The Knights lost just three seniors a year ago and would have presented a major hurdle for Hurricane to clear in the Class AAA sectionals.
Rielly Lucas, Cabell Midland: After flashing serious potential as a freshman, Lucas really came into her own a year ago, leading the Knights with 10 home runs and 45 RBIs in emerging as one of the state’s premier run producers. Between Lucas and Hightower, as well as several other key returners, Midland would have been a dangerous team and figured to be squarely involved in a Mountain State Athletic Conference race with St. Albans, Hurricane and possibly Parkersburg. It certainly would have been something to watch.
Bradlea Hayhurst, Shady Spring: While Region 4 has historically been a meat grinder, especially in Class AA, Region 3 has been no picnic either of late. The buzz was that this was the year that the Tigers overcame Independence and Wyoming East to reach the state tournament. Whether or not that came to fruition we will sadly never know, but Hayhurst put up some of the best numbers in the state over her sophomore and junior years, hitting .609 with eight home runs and 49 RBIs last year, her final season.