With seven sophomores, a freshman and a junior in the starting lineup, the Hickory Ridge High softball team was destined to have an unpredictable season.
First-year coach Patrick Helm said “trying to get that to gel together was a difficult process.” True to his words, the Ragin’ Bulls could string together no more than three wins in a row at any point of the regular season.
Once the post-season hit, however, it was another story.
Starting with its first South Piedmont 3A Conference tournament game, Hickory Ridge became the hottest prep softball team in Cabarrus County. The Ragin’ Bulls won the tourney and advanced to the third round of the state playoffs, a program first.
“It was a great season with the youth and inexperience we had,” said Helm. “The bright side is that I have that team for the next two years.”
While last season’s freshmen made an impact, the team had enough upperclassmen to guide Hickory Ridge to a productive season. The Bulls produced a 13-8 overall record and a third place conference finish.
At the time, Helm had recently decided to give up his posts as the school’s wrestling coach and an assistant football coach because he wanted to enjoy watching his son, Connor, participate on those teams without having to coach him.
Helm, however, was not ready to give up on coachingF all together. He said he had coached high school softball for five years in Washington state. Helm added that it had been 12 years since the last time he led a team on the diamond but he liked what he had coming back with the Hickory Ridge team.
“With the number of freshmen on last year’s team, it would have been easy to say they’re too young, I don’t want to get into that hassle and headache,” Helm said. “Knowing some of the girls’ class and being around them in school, I knew I’d have a hard-working group of young people.”
The team’s lineup would include an all-sophomore outfield including leadoff hitter Gracyn Polk in center and twins Malaya and Malia Black respectively in left and right. Polk and Malia Black both hit above .370 this season.
Second baseman Megan Campany, the team’s only junior starter, was the most experienced infielder and batted .500. Sophomores Brittany Mast and Lindsay Powell, respectively started at shortstop and first base.
While batting cleanup, Powell tied for the team lead in home runs (four) and runs batted in (25) with freshman third baseman Dakota Christie. Powell overcame a broken finger to become the Bulls’ starting pitcher near the end of the season.
Sophomore Breezy Yelton started in the circle for most of the year and posted a 13-6 record with 93 strikeouts in 120 innings. Vocal leader Kaitlyn Macon, a sophomore, motivated her teammates from behind the plate and batted. .347.
“I’d say my season went really well,” said Yelton. “Coach Helm helped me through the season with being mentally tough.”
At the end of the regular season, Hickory Ridge had an 10-11 overall record and its 8-8 league record was good enough for only a fifth place tie with Cox Mill in the standings. Helm and his players knew it was likely that the only way they would qualify for the state playoffs was by winning the conference tournament.
The Bulls opened the tourney with a 7-4 win over fourth seeded China Grove Carson. Macon hit her first homer of the season in a second round 7-6 extra inning victory over regular season champion West Rowan.
In the tournament championship game against seventh seeded East Rowan, Malia and Malaya Black combined for five RBI and Christie, who batted .750 for the tournament, drove in four runs with the help of her fourth homer of the season.
With its tourney championship, Hickory Ridge earned an automatic berth to the state playoffs. It turned away Boiling Springs Crest 9-3 in the first round and Powell and Yelton combined for a 10-inning 1-0 shutout victory over Pisgah in round two.
In the third round, host Ledford scored two runs in the bottom of the sixth to slip past the Bulls with a 3-1 victory. Hickory Ridge’s five-game winning streak ended and it finished its season with a 15-12 overall record.
“The playoffs were rewarding,” said Macon. “I was really proud of the team. Seeing that we’re mostly sophomores and freshmen, it will give us a lot of momentum going into next season.”
Joe Habina is a freelance writer. Have a story idea for Joe? Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.