When Jason Phelix took over the Piedmont High softball team four years ago, he described the program as a “sleeping giant.”
While the Panthers had experienced some success, Phelix said he could help transform the program into a perennial state contender.
After several steps in that direction the past three seasons – winning 53 games – Phelix said it’s now time for the team to make that jump.
“When I sat down with the Piedmont athletic director in my interview, I said by year three or four I expected to be playing for state championships consistently,” said Phelix, who helped start the Cuthbertson softball program as head coach in 2010 and 2011. “So where we are now is by design.
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“I feel like everything is starting to roll and everything is starting to click. We’re on the road to where we want to be.”
This year’s Panthers are 11-1 (4-1 Southern Carolinas Conference through April 14), outscoring opponents 103-27.
The Panthers, No. 2 in the state 3A coaches poll, already have wins against traditional powers including Ardrey Kell, Butler, Charlotte Christian and Marvin Ridge. The team’s only loss is to No. 3 Sun Valley.
The Panthers’ lineup is loaded from top to bottom; Piedmont is batting nearly .400 as a team.
The first six batters are hitting better than .410 – coach’s daughter Kyrah Phelix (.429), Lauren Rushing (.450), Jessica VonCannon (.412), Gracie Gibson (.441), Tristyn Edwards (.425) and Maddi Little (.441).
“We pride ourselves on doing all the little things that add up to making the big things happen,” said Jason Phelix, who has had two players commit to Division I college softball in Edwards (Appalachian State) and VonCannon (Wingate). “I look a lot at the deeper statistics, like quality at-bats, hard-hit balls.… A lot of times the difference between a hit and an out is a few inches. We focus on executing all the little things in every at-bat.”
Senior captain Danielle Del Bene said, “It’s awesome to be a part of this lineup, because everyone, one through nine, can get a hit at any time. If one of us has a bad day, everyone in this lineup can pick each other up.”
Piedmont’s pitching also has been strong. No. 1 starter Cristi Pressley is 10-1 with a 1.44 ERA and 98 strikeouts in 73 innings.
The success of 2015 Piedmont softball is the culmination of building from the ground up, said Phelix.
The day he got the Piedmont job, he reached out to the director of the Piedmont Recreation Association and got involved with the selection and development of the coaches and players on the Piedmont Middle School softball team.
Phelix and the Panthers also work with future players during camps and clinics.
“When I came here, I wanted to model this program after some of the best teams… like Alexander Central and North Davidson,” Phelix said. “Like those communities, the Piedmont community is a place that takes a lot of pride in its home-grown players. A lot of our players had parents and even some grandparents that went to Piedmont.”
“We take a lot of pride in growing and developing our players from within,” he said. “We do things the ‘Piedmont Way,’ which means taking the same hard-working approach that people in our community have.”
The Piedmont players say they feel the same way.
“Playing for Piedmont means a lot to all of us, and we know it means a lot to the community because there is rarely an open seat at our (home games),” Pressley said. “When you look in the crowd at a home game or a camp or clinic and see all the younger girls that look up to you, it’s kind of overwhelming. But at the same time, you want to play even harder knowing all those people are cheering for you.”
One of Piedmont’s most painful losses has turned into one of its biggest motivations. After winning 10 of its last 11 regular-season games and the SCC tournament title, Piedmont’s 2014 season ended when it lost 7-4 to Fred T. Foard in the opening round of the 3A state playoffs.
“That loss was really tough and kind of a shock for our whole team,” said Phelix, who took his first two Piedmont teams to the third round of the playoffs. “But I think it has really fueled this team. We know that we have to have the same focus in every game.”
“We hope this year is the just the start of many big things to come,” Phelix said. “We want to keep reloading every season, because that is what good teams do. We are definitely a program on the rise.
“If you are buying stock, you’d want to buy stock in us.”
Jay Edwards is a freelance writer. Have a story idea for Jay? Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.