While the vast majority of prep softball teams in West Virginia would have had holes to fill and questions to answer, St. Albans and coach Christian Watts likely had the opposite problem — trying to find at-bats and playing time for a plethora of talented, experienced players.
It would have been a nice problem to have, but a problem all the same.
The Red Dragons were returning nearly their entire starting lineup, including junior stalwarts Jillian Holley, Kendall Stoffel, Gracie Payne and Taylor Glancy as well as sophomores Alivia Nunley, Emily Sharp and Bailey Gilber. Senior Julia Vancamp was also returning after missing time a year ago with injury.
In the offseason, St. Albans welcomed in a couple of transfers in senior Brianna McCown (from George Washington) and sophomore Jaden Conrad (from Ripley). McCown had garnered three first-team All-State selections in as many years as a flame-throwing hurler for the Patriots and will continue her career at Marshall next year.
Added to all of that was freshman Tayven Stephenson, a pitcher who has already committed to play at Kentucky despite having yet thrown a single pitch or taken a single at-bat at the high school level.
Talent was not going to be an issue for St. Albans, but keeping individuals happy may have been. But that’s something Watts said he and his staff have tackled since Day One with the team, and that the Red Dragons were all-in on chasing team glory while possibly having to sacrifice individual needs.
“We told them all on the very first flex day that here at St. Albans, we’re like a bank or a federal credit union — we’re an equal-opportunity lender in terms of playing time,” Watts said. “We knew how much talent we had, but it was going to be a case of who today gives us the best chance to win and that was the approach we were going to take.
“The majority of the kids were buying into that. When you have a chance to do something special — and we felt we had the team to do something special — when you can bring home a state championship or have a chance to compete for one in a small town in West Virginia, that means a lot. You put aside personal things and a lot of girls bought into that mentality. It was the best offseason we’ve had in my six years here.”
In addition to a lineup stocked full of run producers, the trio of pitchers — McCown, Stephenson and Stoffel — would have likely been among the best in the state. Stoffel was also a first-team All-State pitcher a year ago in taking on the majority of the team’s innings once Kinsey Hudson went down with an injury. Hudson, who would have been a senior this year, chose not to play.
But perhaps one of the most disappointing things from the canceled season will be the Kanawha Valley and beyond being stripped of the opportunity to get a good first look at Stephenson. There has been a buzz around the ninth grader since early in her middle-school career when she was already hitting 60 miles per hour already on the radar gun.
“Tayven is the real deal,” Watts said. “And outside of her athletic ability, she’s just a good teammate. You didn’t get to see it this year, but if you go to workouts or our practices, she would stand out there and give every teammate a high-five or offer some uplifting words, and that’s one thing you don’t see out of many kids, especially ones that know they’re talented and that there’s a lot of hype around them. She’s very modest about it all. She’s blue-collar.”
While McCown never had the opportunity to throw a pitch in a Red Dragons jersey, between workouts and practices Watts said she still left a lasting imprint on the program, particularly when it came to mentoring Stephenson. Along with Stoffel, the duo offered a feast of knowledge for the youngster to absorb.
“Tayven and Brianna, I think they were real good as far as role-modeling your approach once you get to the high school level,” Watts said. “When you play in this area of the state, every game is a big game. We were fortunate with Brianna, who played in three state tournaments and the state championship game, and with Kendall, who was really our workhorse last season. That’s a lot of good experience. For them to be around a ninth grader and to take Tayven under their wings from the beginning, that’s invaluable.”
While the canceled spring sports season was disappointing to all, it hit St. Albans especially hard. Despite only losing two seniors this spring — McCown and Vancamp — the Red Dragons were confident that they were the team to perhaps end Hurricane’s stranglehold on the Class AAA title, one that has lasted five straight seasons and six of the last seven.
“Everyone had that feeling,” Watts said. “From the beginning everyone was on board, ‘Let’s go out and make this year special.’ It’s hard to digest. I can’t begin to say the disappointment I have.”