TAYLORSVILLE In 1979, Alvin Burke saw his first Alexander Central High softball game. He was working at a General Electric plant in Hickory and had a good friend with some daughters on the team. Alexander Central beat Fayetteville’s Cape Fear High to win its first state championship.
Now, 35 years later, Burke still sits his lawn chair outside the school’s playing field to watch the Cougars play.
“It’s a highlight,” said Burke, now retired and 75. “It’s one of the biggest things in this county. For the last a couple of weeks, I’ve had a friend in the school system set my chair up at 5:30 in the morning (for a game that starts at 6 or 7 at night). By 9 (in the morning), they would already have about 40 more set up.”
In this town of 2,075, Alexander Central softball is much like big-time high school football in towns such as Kannapolis or Rockingham in North Carolina, or Summerville or Duncan in South Carolina. Last week at the team’s last home playoff game against North Davidson, there were nearly 1,000 people standing and sitting and straining to see. Drive around town this week and you’ll see young boys cutting grass wearing an AC softball T-shirt, or fans in the grocery store wearing navy caps with an “A” on the front.
Friday, Alexander Central will take another powerhouse team to the 4A state finals in Raleigh. The Cougars are 33-0 and ranked No. 1 in the nation by USA Today. They’ve won 64 games in a row and face Cape Fear, the team the Cougars beat 35 years ago, in a quest to win a ninth state championship in 12 tries.
As usual, wherever the Alexander Central softball express goes, a large chunk of Taylorsville will follow.
“It’s the biggest thing in the community,” said Rick Gilbert of WACB-AM radio. “When you look at it, all the wins they’ve had over the years and all the championships, it’s mind-boggling.”
The man behind most all of it is coach Monte Sherrill.
In the fall of 1988, he was asked to move from being a baseball assistant to coaching softball. He figured he would do it for a few years and move back. Instead, he found his passion.
Sherrill was raised by a strict father and was the oldest of four. His dad was no-nonsense, and Sherrill coaches that way. It’s rubbed some of his opponents the wrong way over the years, but speak to his players – this year and past years – and they love the man. They even love his six-days-per-week, three-hours-per-day practice sessions, which everyone says is one of the secrets to the success. Earlier this year, Sherrill wrote an essay for MaxPreps, a national high schoo1 website, after winning his 700th game.
“I specifically remember one instance when my Little League coach, Bobby Deal, gave our team an incentive,” Sherrill wrote. “He told us that he would take us to Hardee’s for a hamburger if we were undefeated at the end of the year. Boy, that’s what we went after, giving it all we had. We ended up winning the Little League State Championship because we thought he might take us out for another victory meal. I have built our program on the old-fashioned philosophy of earning your spot and every player being a part of something that is bigger than themselves. We were a ‘throwback’ team in 1989 and still are in 2014.”
In 25 seasons, Sherrill has lost 59 games. He’s also won 722 and nine state championships. He left Alexander Central for a few years to coach at Central Cabarrus. He was 119-3 in four seasons there and won two of those nine state titles, but leaving Taylorsville each weekday at 5:20 in the morning and getting home after 9 p.m grew old. Also, Sherrill said he wasn’t able to coach his daughters, Bailey and Vada in youth softball. So he returned to Alexander Central in 2007.
Bailey Sherrill is 18 now. At 3 she was diagnosed with a rare form of cancer. In addition to other treatments, her father gave her a shot in the thigh each day for nearly two years. Monte Sherrill was coaching a state championship game the day Bailey was rushed to the hospital and diagnosed. For weeks, she bruised easily and had been lethargic.
The treatments took and Bailey has been cancer-free for years. After batting .420 in a limited role for the 2013 state champions, she’s hitting .550 this season with eight home runs.
Bailey is her class salutatorian and will attend Wake Forest in the fall after a Bible study mission to Panama this summer. Her sister, Vada, a junior, was named N.C. Gatorade Player of the Year Thursday.
Vada – who sings in her church choir, carries a 3.94 GPA and volunteers in a local nursing home and a food pantry – has tied the state record with 59 runs scored. She has 60 hits, 40 RBIs, 48 stolen bases and bats .570 with three home runs.
“She’s picked up on the little nuances of the game that a lot of kids don’t see or feel or hear and that’s who she is,” Monte Sherrill said. “She’s one of those rare players that’s got the total package.”
Alabama, N.C. State and Georgia have already offered scholarships to Vada, who plans to pick a school in a few weeks.
Girls like Vada and Bailey grow up in Taylorsville dreaming of playing for Alexander Central, and playing on the year-round travel clubs that Monte Sherrill helped cultivate in Taylorsville. This town has produced multiple high school All-Americans, including Georgia pitcher Chelsea Wilkinson, a two-time collegiate All-American and SEC tournament MVP. Alexander Central plays in a stadium that is small-college quality, and the field and the area talent lured North Carolina and Georgia to play there in September. Sherrill said N.C. State and Georgia are planning a game in Taylorsville in the fall.
And this season might be the best group Sherrill’s system has produced.
Besides Vada Sherrill, who is a national player of the year candidate, shortstop Taylor Wike has committed to North Carolina. She hits .639 with five home runs. Pitcher Kiana Millsaps is 17-0 with an 0.85 ERA. She also has six home runs and 38 RBIs.
“We are loaded with tremendous talent, 1 through 9,” Monte Sherrill said. “I believe it goes back to all the practice and intensity we have in practice. They’re pushed so hard that games are more like a reward.”
Bailey Sherrill said her father’s hard drive is more than worth it.
“If you see some people in the community, espeically the elderly who read the paper a lot, they flag you down and want to have a conversation for 10 minutes,” she said. “We’re admired and praised by a lot of people.”
Gilbert, the local radio host, predicts around 400 people will make the four-hour drive to Raleigh for the state finals. His station will broadcast the championship and has 35 local sponsors.
“It’s huge,” Gilbert said. “And I’ve followed them forever. There are two players on this team – Vada and Taylor Wike – who are among the best handful of players the program has ever had. This may be the best team Alexander Central has ever had. What Monte has built here is pretty impressive. It’s a beast and it just keeps feeding itself.”
And Burke, possibly the school’s longest-running fan, doesn’t see the machine slowing down for a long time.
“The parents are willing to go that extra step,” he said, “and the girls are, too. We’re a small town and there’s not that much activity. Softball brings us all together.”
Wertz: 704-612-9716; Twitter: @langstonwertzjr
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