Rick Nester heard the talk almost as soon as the final out was recorded in last year’s state championship game.
With 11 players back, including 4A Player of the Year Sydney Nester, Carroll County’s softball team will be a heavy favorite to repeat as state champion in 2016. And while the Cavaliers will undoubtedly be tabbed as the team to beat, Carroll will also have a massive target on its collective back this season. Besides, Cavalier fans should know better than anyone how hard it is to win a state title – the softball team’s championship was the first state crown for a team sport in the 47-year history of the school.
“A whole lot of things have to fall into place for that to work. Last year we didn’t make an error in the postseason. That is not something that happens all the time. We work on the defense, but still, playing that many games and playing error-free, you can’t expect that to happen every year,” Carroll County head coach Rick Nester said. “You look at how the games played out in region play. There was multiple one-run games. It was 0-0 going to the top of the seventh in the regional semifinals. (Fluvanna) made an error and we scored three runs real quick. If we had done something like that, who knows what would have happened to us?”
Still, you’ve got to like Carroll County’s chances to make another state title run in 2016. After all, the Cavaliers return four players that earned All-Conference 24 honors a year ago, including the first- and second-team pitchers, and three players that earned all-region honors. But the team is not taking the attitude of defending the state championship, instead striving to do the same things it has done each season in Nester’s four-year tenure.
“We have the same goal we have every year and we talked about it the very first day,” Nester said. “And that is for no one to be able to beat us twice and not to lose two games in a row. If we are able to do that, then that should put us in a position to advance.”
The first order of business will be replacing four irreplaceable seniors. The Cavaliers lose a pair of All-State selections in centerfielder Tiffanie Moore and shortstop Cheyenne Strickland, both now playing for the Ferrum Panthers. Also gone are All-Region third baseman Hannah Dalton and first-team all-conference outfielder Sydney Childress.
Fortunately for Carroll, there seems to be plenty of good options. Kyndall Hiatt’s late-season injury last year may have been a blessing in disguise as Caitlin Horton stepped right up and played fantastic in the postseason.
“Caitlin Horton will catch a lot this year. When Kyndall got hurt, Horton stepped up and did a fabulous job from that that point on. With her doing that, that gives us the situation where Kyndall can play at shortstop where we needed a shortstop,” Nester said. “We can move her there and put Caitlin behind the plate. She threw out a girl from Fluvanna at a big point in the regional semifinals and did the same thing against Deep Creek in the state semifinals. She did a great job of keeping the ball in front of her and she is also hitting the ball well in practice.”
Hiatt will still catch some, but play shortstop often. Gracie Davidson, an all-conference second baseman, will move over to third base and man the position along with sophomore Alexis Meredith. Fresh off scoring the winning run in the state title game, Jeannie Utt will take over at second base.
“And right now Morgan Tompkins is a returning outfielder and the other two spots are between Kayla Robinson, Alexis Meredith, Katie McKenzie and Syd Nester when she is not pitching,” Nester said. “The defensive part, I think the girls will do fine with that. We are just going to work on the offensive part each day in practice.”
Tompkins played right field last year, but is athletic enough to possibly warrant a move to center. The Cavaliers also have the luxury of returning Emily Cook at first base. Just a sophomore, Cook earned first-team all-conference and second-team all-region honors last year as a ninth grader. Cook can also pitch and is expected to get some time on the mound with Davidson and Sydney Nester.
Moving up from the JV team will be junior Jenna Alley, who will be batting in the DP position and working some at first base. Nester said she’s been swinging the bat well.
Carroll should also have one of the top pitching staffs in the state. Leading the way will be Sydney Nester, who committed to N.C. State over the summer. As a freshman in 2015, Nester had an incredible season, going 19-0 with a 0.82 earned run average. She struck out 222 batters while walking just 24. Coach Nester said his ace has picked up a little more speed on her fastball and her breaking pitches have a little more movement than last year, both very scary thoughts for Cavalier opponents.
“I feel like our pitching should be very strong, giving us a chance to be in games against anybody we play,” Rick Nester said. “I’m hoping our hitting comes along with new girls filling in spots in the lineup. We had the same thing last year and we hope their numbers increase just like last year’s group.”
Most importantly, Nester said the team is not resting on its laurels. The girls are bringing a great work ethic in practice, asking for more and more extra reps.
“I have to literally say, “Get out, that is enough.’ But that is a good problem to have,” Nester said. “The offseason workouts didn’t drop off any. If you let someone else outwork you, they are going to get you. If you don’t go in hungry, you won’t get it.”
Allen Worrell can be reached at (276) 779-4062 or on Twitter@AWorrellTCN