If last year’s trip to the state tournament was a learning experience for the Nitro softball team, the Wildcats were sure poised to capitalize on the lessons learned this season, at least on paper.
Nitro lost just a couple of seniors from last year’s squad, and had the nucleus of its team still intact. Also, a big offseason transfer and a large group of 10 incoming freshmen would’ve likely bolstered the team even more.
“We were excited,” Nitro coach Mike Taylor said. “We had a really good team coming back.”
All that was, of course, derailed when West Virginia’s spring sports seasons were canceled due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
Graduated senior Hailey Harr vacated the shortstop position, seemingly leaving a big hole in the Wildcats’ infield. But Liv McClain, a former resident of the community, moved back in from Las Vegas and was set to fill the position. A Division I signee with Niagara, McClain would’ve figured to add even more punch atop an already potent Nitro lineup.
“She grew up in the area and then her family moved to Vegas where she played her freshman, sophomore and junior years, and then she moved back here over the summer,” Taylor explained. “The girls all knew her. She was really good. She was going to be really tough at the top of the order. She could hit both ways and had a head for the game. I hate that I didn’t have a chance to coach her for a season.”
Taylor also pointed to a couple of freshmen — Carly Mathes and Avery Sayre — as likely candidates to immediately contribute. If Mathes’ name sounds familiar, it should. She is the younger sister of Caiti Mathes, the Gazette-Mail’s 2019 Kanawha Valley Co-Player of the Year from Hurricane who is now a freshman at Marshall.
Obviously, they were big footsteps to follow, but Taylor said in addition to big-time power, positional flexibility and talent, Mathes also brought a heightened sense of maturity and perspective from day one.
“She’s got a future ahead of her and she’s never talked about comparing herself to her sister,” Taylor said. “She’s bonded so well with the kids and she has a great, positive attitude. I’m really impressed with her maturity. She’s a big, strong girl, she throws hard and she probably would’ve pitched as well.”
That would’ve added even more to an already outstanding rotation that featured junior Bella Savilla and sophomore Lena Elkins, the 2019 Kanawha Valley Freshman of the Year.
The good news for the Wildcats is that the team will be nearly completely intactin 2021 as McClain was the only senior listed on the roster. But despite the team’s youth, like other spring sports teams around the state, the cancellation of the season still hurts.
“We’re just like everyone else, we’re no different,” Taylor said. “You think about what you missed out on. This is just a void in everybody’s career and you have to find a way to get around it. We only had one senior, but that didn’t make it any easier.
“It’s such a strange thing to happen. We were that close to playing, we were a couple practices short of [the required] 14 and then this comes out of nowhere. It’s just out of our control and we will look forward to next year.”
But for the time being, Taylor and the Wildcats can only wonder what could have been.
“I still keep our schedule on the fridge and I look at it about every day and think of where we would be,” Taylor admitted. “We would’ve played at Buffalo and Hoover this week. It’s hard to know where we might have been after that.”