After the cancellation of spring sports this week by the West Virginia Secondary School Activities Commission, the Class of 2020 will be remembered forever for what they weren’t able to do on the field.
But when it comes to softball players in the Kanawha Valley, there is even more to remember in terms of what happened on the diamond, even if their careers were cut short by a year. What the area and state has seen out of this group of athletes over the last three years borders on the unprecedented.
In particular, a wave of seven players in this class showed dominance in the circle throughout their careers, collectively piling up numbers, accolades and titles to place themselves among the best classes from any area in the history of the sport in the Mountain State, dating back to 1981.
Their success came in the face of an offensive renaissance within the game at all levels, statistically mirroring the pitcher-dominated era of years past while pointing to where the game may be headed.
The Class of 2020 will always be the seniors that never were, but it may also come to represent the crossroads of the game in our state — a mix of tandem pitchers and inning-eating bulldogs that left a wave of wins and a trail of opposing hitters shaking their heads in their wake.
“When I was growing up playing, it was pitcher-dominant, but we’ve seen a shift to offense on the college and high school levels,” Hurricane coach Meghan Stevens explained. “For the area to have that level of elite pitching, it’s really been something to see and I don’t know if we’ll see that again for a while.”
Hurricane’s Harlie Vannatter, George Washington’s Brianna McCown (who transferred to St. Albans this year), Herbert Hoover’s Delani Buckner and Presley McGee, Buffalo’s Lindsey Russell and Maggie Bird and Charleston Catholic’s Olivia Corbett have combined to leave an indelible mark on softball and prep athletics in the Kanawha Valley and beyond.
Between them, in 21 possible seasons, there were 20 All-State distinctions of some kind. A total of 3,042 times over the past three years, an opposing hitter was a strikeout victim to one of them. Those pitchers ended their three-year careers combining to win 289 games while losing 94, with several of those coming against each other.
St. Albans’ Kinsey Hudson would have been the eighth member, but significant injury woes plagued her sophomore and junior seasons and she didn’t come out to play this year as a senior.
Vannatter guided Hurricane to three Class AAA state championships with McCown leading GW to the state tournament in all three of her seasons. Buckner and McGee combined to help bring three Class AA state titles back to Falling Rock and spearheaded a 33-0 campaign in 2018. That Hoover senior group will leave having won 69 of its last 70 games.
In Buckner and McGee, as well as Russell and Bird, the slow shift away from a single, primary pitcher to a two-hurler system or beyond is illustrated. Both Buckner and Hoover coach Missy Smith credit McGee for having a hand in Buckner’s success, which sits among the best three-year runs ever seen in the circle.
Buckner, the 2018 Gatorade West Virginia Player of the Year and 2019 WVSWA Co-Player of the Year, ended her prep career with a mark of 52-3 with a 0.53 earned run average and 664 strikeouts in 343 innings pitched, averaging just under two per inning. McGee lost just one game in her career and that came against Chapmanville in March of 2017. She finished with a mark of 31-1 with 259 strikeouts in 150 innings and a 1.03 ERA.
“With girls, there tends to be some jealousy every now and then and I’ve had conversations with both of them and there has definitely been some maturity and acceptance of roles,” Smith said. “For a long time throughout high school history, the goal was to get one pitcher and pitch her through and now coaches are building staffs. College coaches have aces, but they have other pitchers because depending on what your game is, you have to have better options in specific times and it’s healthier for the girls.”
While all seven have had remarkable prep careers, within that group, the collective efforts of Vannatter, Buckner and McCown have been even at another level.
The three combined to strike out 1,888 hitters in 1,213 innings, an average of over 1.5 per inning. The trio compiled a 174-28 record with a collective ERA of 1.41 with eight first-team All-State selections and one second-team nod in nine combined seasons. Their shared history dates far beyond their high school careers and all had memories of growing up and sharpening their skills together.
“Most of them I grew up with,” McCown said. “We’re all kind of close and we get along. Me and Harlie went to pitching lessons together as we came up and we kind of have the same philosophy.”
The big three, while sharing common bonds in terms of success, bring their own unique styles and skill sets. McCown is a flame-throwing, fist-pumping, intimidating force in the circle. Vannatter has been more of an old-school rubber arm, throwing 76 more innings than anyone else in the Valley yet always somehow saving her best for the postseason.
Buckner, meanwhile, used movement and location to leave hitters off balance and still packed plenty enough heat to blow batters away, all while bringing an even-keeled, cerebral approach to the game.
“The thing about those three, they’re competitors,” Smith added. “They want to pitch against each other because they know it’s going to be a good game. When you have kids that embrace those kinds of games you’ve got something. That’s when they all throw their best.”
“A lot of my favorite memories are those heated rivalry battles with Brianna and Harlie,” Stevens said. “And Delani has such a different style, always so calm and quiet. She just goes to work. I love her approach.”
All three will now move on to Division I colleges, with Vannatter bound for Bowling Green, McCown going to Marshall and Buckner heading to Appalachian State.
And though all three were stripped of their opportunity at a final season to further solidify their places in the sport’s history, all have a heightened sense of awareness about them.
Softball continues to be a sport that slides under the statewide radar despite consistently churning out as much if not more college talent than any other sport under the WVSSAC umbrella. That’s something all of them, as well as softball players across the state, have taken personally.
“It’s special because we’re growing the sport of softball in West Virginia and that’s the main thing,” Buckner said. “To have a good group of girls like this — and these are just the pitchers — it’s great just to grow the sport. There’s a stigma around it and the stereotypes that come with being a female to begin with. We work extra hard to overcome those stigmas and stereotypes.”
“I think we’ve definitely made history,” Vannatter concluded. “We’ve really done something.”