Every high school sports season there are athletes whose abilities cast them into starring roles. However, for each star player, there are dozens who, for various reasons, go virtually unnoticed.
Often the unheralded athletes make extraordinary contributions that are critical to their team’s success.
Today we highlight some of Mecklenburg County’s athletes who toiled in the shadows, but during the 2016 spring sports season turned in extraordinary performances. From the baseball diamond to the golf course to the soccer field to the track, here’s a look at 10 athletes who had seasons to remember.
Kassie Nielsen, Charlotte Latin, Sr.: Kassie will be the first to tell you that for the first three years of her Charlotte Latin soccer career, she was a role player.
As a senior, Nielsen wanted to step up her game.
The Hawks’ center midfielder, co-captain did just that. She had career highs in both goals (11) and assists (12) to help her team to their second straight, NCISAA 3A state championship.
Nielsen was at her best when it mattered most. She scored seven goals in her final seven games. She also saved her best for last as she scored a goal, then assisted the game winning goal in a 2-1, double-overtime victory over Providence Day in the state semifinals.
The next day, she had the game winning assist in a 2-1 victory over Cary Academy to win the state title.
Now she’s headed to Wake Forest University, where she plans on studying medicine and eventually hopes to be a doctor.
Julia Grainda, Community School of Davidson, Sr.: Julia Grainda’s sophomore and junior seasons didn’t end the way she imagined.
She broke her leg in the 1A state semifinals against Gray Stone Day in 2014. Then next year, as a junior, she missed the season when she tore her ACL in a game with her Carolina Rapids’ club team.
But she had a final season for the ages.
Grainda scored 31 goals and was named all-state. She was never better than in the 1A state title game, where she had two goals and two assists to lead her team to the championship (5-1 over Franklin Academy). She was named the games Most Valuable Player. Grainda will continue her soccer career at UNC Charlotte.
John Dancy, Ardrey Kell, Jr.: John Dancy started his junior season hoping to establish himself in his first year on the varsity squad.
By end of the season, he was one of the Knights’ top pitchers. He went 3-3 with a 1.37 earned-run average, striking out 47 batters in 41 innings pitched. He also had three saves. Dancy has a devastating slider and fastball that hits 90 mph.
He tossed a no-hitter against Hough. In that game, Dancy walked the first batter and pitched a perfect game the rest of the way. He has committed to play for UNC Chapel Hill.
River Ryan, North Mecklenburg, Sr.: For most of River Ryan’s baseball career, he has played in the shadow of his older brother, Ryder Ryan, who was an all-American at North Mecklenburg before going to UNC.
Ryder Ryan was drafted by the Cleveland Indians in the 2016 Major League Baseball draft earlier this month. Ryan’s father, Sean, also is a former professional baseball player, with the Philadelphia Phillies triple-A organization.
Ryan missed nearly the entire 2015-2016 offseason after fracturing both of his L5 vertebrae. But he had a strong senior season.
He batted .403, with 11 doubles and 13 stolen bases. As a pitcher he had 120 strikeouts and allowed only 11 earned runs in 57 innings. Now he’s headed to the UNC Pembroke.
Robbie Wallon, Charlotte Catholic, Sr.: Robbie Wallon, knows all about playing in the shadow of a sibling.
He has spent most of his lacrosse career as ‘Natalie’s brother,’ referring to his older sister, Natalie Wallon, who was an All-American at Catholic and now plays lacrosse at Syracuse University.
However, Robbie has made a name for himself. This year he scored 38 goals to earn conference 11 player of the year. He also helped lead the Cougars to an 18-2 record.
Catholic coach, Bo Turner, says multiple coaches have called Robbie “the most underrated player in the state.” He was a third-team all-state pick and won’t play college lacrosse, but will attend East Carolina University and major in accounting.
Blake Wagoner, Hough, Sr.: Wagoner has been a good player on a great team for his entire Hough golf career.
But this season, as captain, he “took his game to another level,” according to coach James Raeford.
Wagoner’s final month was his finest. First he won the MECKA 4A conference championship. Then he tied for fourth at the 4A West Regional (73), just one shot out of a three-man playoff for the title. Hough’s team won the 4A Western Regional title team championship.
Finally, Wagoner tied for fourth at the 4A state meet (67-77), shooting even-par in the two-day event. He will continue playing golf at Arizona State University.
Julianna Roupas and Sam Russ, Providence Day, (both juniors): Roupas and Russ have improved every season they’ve played for Providence Day.
This season, Roupas led the Charger pitching staff. She posted an 18-5 record with 221 strikeouts, while tossing six no hitters.
Meanwhile, Russ led was CISAA conference Player of the Year with a .694 batting average, 55 runs and 50 stolen bases.
The Providence Day juniors helped their team (18-6, 10-0 CISAA conference title) to a NCISAA 3A state runner-up finish. Roupas has committed to play at Appalachian State, while Russ is an N.C. State commit.
Kenya Livingston, Rocky River, Soph.: Livingston burst onto the high school track scene as a freshman in winter and spring of 2015, winning a national championship at the New Balance Indoor Nationals in New York City (March), before finishing as 4A state runner-up in May.
But the Rocky River standout got even better as a sophomore as she posted the fifth-best high jump in the nation at 5-foot-10, to win the 4A state championship. Livingston had already won the state indoor, high jump title.
She experienced what she called “a life changing” event one week after the outdoor state championship, when she competed for Team USA in the Caribbean Scholastic Invitational in Havana, Cuba. She finished second in the high jump in Cuba.
Khafre Brown, West Mecklenburg, Fr.: This time last year, Khafre Brown was just leaving middle school.
But the 14-year old, West Mecklenburg freshman has proven to be one of the fastest runners and best jumpers in the state.
He was 4A state runner-up in the 200-meter dash, fourth in the 100-meter dash and fifth in the long jump. He also was the 4A West champion in the 200 and the long jump, while winning the SoMeck8 conference title in all three events.
Brown had his best performance to date at New Balance Nationals (June
16-19), where he won the 100-meter dash in the Emerging Elite field, running a 10.57 seconds. He ran a personal-best 10.55 in the preliminary race in the same event.
The Carmel Christian tennis team didn’t make the playoffs in their first varsity season in 2015.
But immediately after their first season, coach Kellie Kayton says her team made it their goal to get in the state tournament – and win it. So, that’s what they did. The Cougars went 14-2 on their way to the NCISAA 2A state title.
A 5-3 win May 20 in the state finals over Trinity Christian gave Carmel Christian their first state championship in school history – in any sport.
The Cougars were led by sophomore, No. 1 Dillon Gooch, who was 18-0 on the season. The Cougars also got big contributions from freshmen, Alec Strause and Rob Gruber, Matthew Gooch, Jackson Stipp, and Andrew Riebe.
Jay Edwards is a freelance writer: firstname.lastname@example.org.