Behind seniors, Bulldogs refuse to have down year

Getting off to a tough 2-5 start to the season, many of Jay M. Robinson High's softball players didn't expect much success this year.

"I didn't even think we were going to make it to playoffs," said catcher Hayley Lewis.

But Lewis and her fellow Bulldog seniors refused to end their high school careers with a bad taste in their mouths.

"We weren't going to leave this school the way we started the season," said senior second baseman Brynn Clarke. "We were intent on making a change to start winning."

Having lost two Division I softball players to graduation - in Liberty's Katie Zavodny and UNC-Wilmington's Camry Wagner - and suffering other unexpected losses, the seniors had to step up and take a new approach after the slow start.

"They never got down, and instead we kind of changed our philosophy from 'Here's all the things we're doing wrong' to 'Here's all the things we're doing right,'" said Robinson coach Jim Allen.

"They just said, 'Hey, move on.' That became contagious."

Senior Alex Church said the turnaround began in the dugout.

"There was a slight lack of team support," she said. "We were always a team , but I feel like we weren't cheering for each other as much as we should."

The Bulldogs also experimented by making some changes in their hitting lineup and on the field, where only two players were left in the same positions they played last year.

"It took us being able to kind of go outside of our comfort zone and try new things," said senior Megan Crowe, who moved from third base to shortstop. "That helped a lot, and once we started to turn it around, the energy picked up. ... It's a lot more fun to win. I can honestly say that."

Robinson, which finished the year 17-8, made an impressive turnaround to claim a share of the South Piedmont Conference regular-season championship along with Northwest Cabarrus.

The Trojans also won the conference tournament title, defeating the Bulldogs 4-0 in the championship.

Earning the SPC's No. 2 seed, Robinson made it to the third round of the 3A softball playoffs, where it finished the season in a 3-2 loss to North Iredell.

Allen credited his team's defensive play for their success. He said the team played to that strength, knowing they weren't as good a hitting team as last year's Bulldogs. Robinson's batting average was .268 for the season, a significant dropoff from last year's .360.

The return of all-conference pitcher Dallas King, who was sidelined the first three weeks of the season with a lower back injury, also helped propel the team.

Allen added that the Bulldogs couldn't have "overachieved" this year without their seniors, because their experience was valuable to their younger teammates.

"The seniors have led this team all the way - in fielding, batting, in everything," he said.

The core group of seniors grew up playing tournament softball together since their middle school years, so their chemistry was also beneficial to the Bulldogs.

"We're like a family," said Church.

Clarke agreed.

"I couldn't ask for a better group of senior girls," she said. "We all get along really well, and it's just always fun to be around them."

After spending hundreds of hours on the Robinson softball field, the seniors have bittersweet feelings about the end of their Bulldog careers. But now they have college to look forward to.

Church and Crowe will continue to play together at Western Carolina, while Lewis will play at UNCCharlotte. Clarke will attend UNC-Wilmington.

Allen admits his Bulldogs will miss the class of 2011, but he's also encouraged by what he's seen this year, as well as the talent coming from the J.V. team and from middle school.

"They're going to work their butts off and get ready for next year," he said. "We don't want anyone writing us off."