Pair of juniors come up big for Bulldog softball

Jay M. Robinson's softball team had not been a factor in a conference championship race since 2005.

Winning their first league title in five years wasn't the only thing new for the Bulldogs in 2010.

After spending four years in the 4A classification, Robinson returned to 3A this school year and to the South Piedmont Conference. The Bulldogs also had a new coaching staff, led by longtime tournament softball coach Jim Allen.

So a couple of personnel changes, including those made with juniors Ashley Burke and Alex Church, worked out for the better of the team. Reaching the quarterfinals of the state playoffs made this season one of the best in program history.

"Both Alex Church and Ashley Burke were instrumental in our elite eight finish in the state this season," said Allen. "Both are honor students academically. Most importantly both are really good kids."

Church was an alternating starter at first base last year, but Allen awarded her the full-time job this season. Burke was a two-time all-conference infielder before Allen moved her to designated hitter.

Several years ago, Church and Burke started out on the same team in the Mallard Creek Recreational League. Both tried out softball because of role models they had.

Two of Burke's three older brothers played baseball and she tried softball just to emulate them, while Church idolized a softball-pitching older babysitter.

The 16-year old neighbor tried to teach the 9-year-old Church how to pitch, but she never got the hang of it. Church now laughs about how inaccurate her pitches were and how she eventually realized the craft "wasn't for me."

Church quickly became an outfielder, the position she played through middle school at Harris Road, where she was teammates with Burke. Two years ago she switched to infield and played first base for the Bulldogs' JV team as a freshman.

Burke played only one game on the JV squad. She impressed former varsity coach Amber Handy enough that she made Burke her starting second baseman as a freshman.

Last season, Burke switched to the left side of the infield - to third base - while Church split time and starts with Sabrina Jarvis.

Both Church and Burke swung a big stick in their new roles this season.

Church hit over .400 for much of the season and finished at .360. She had 31 hits and drew 10 walks and reached base at a .490 rate.

One of Church's biggest moments came in an early season game against China Grove Carson. With Robinson trailing 3-1 with two outs in the bottom of the seventh, Church drilled a two-strike pitch for a three-run walk-off homer and a Bulldog victory.

In the clean-up position, Burke's average also hovered around .400 for much of the year. She finished with a .342 average and led the Bulldogs with a .547 on-base percentage.

Robinson won the SPC regular season with a 14-2 record and claimed the conference tournament championship. The Bulldogs rolled over their first three state playoff opponents 27-3, then lost to East Rowan in the quarterfinals 2-0.

Expectations should be high for the Bulldogs next year as Robinson loses just two players to graduation. Church and Burke are two of six rising seniors who should come up big next season.

This summer, Church will play tournament ball for the Carolina Blast and spent June 14-17 at a skills camp at Winthrop University.

Burke has stepped away from tournament softball because of her work schedule and commitment to church. She sings in the choir and plays bass guitar for First Advent Christian Church's praise band, Manna.