Independence High has not returned to the lofty position of softball dominance it held around the turn of the century, but the Patriots are getting close.
With the emergence of powerhouses at Butler and Porter Ridge, it might not be possible for the Patriots to rule the Southwestern 4A Conference like they once did, but fourth-year Independence coach Amanda Larry and her players say they are again in the conversation.
And if the Patriots (8-4) are to progress into state title contention again this year, the combination of a senior and a freshman likely will have much to do with it.
“We’re at the point where we’ve been highly competitive in the conference the last several years,” said Larry, whose team hosts Butler at 5:30 p.m. Tuesday in a big Southwestern 4A game.
“We’re putting the little pieces together. It’s those missing little pieces that has kept us from getting on top.”
Independence won the state 4A title in 1999, was second in 1996 and third in 2000. Then Butler took over, winning state titles in 2001 and from 2006-2008. A Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools redistricting after that had the effect of spreading the eastern Mecklenburg talent more evenly among the two schools.
Meanwhile, Union County’s Porter Ridge emerged as a power and has won the past two league titles. The Pirates have a 4-0 Southwestern 4A record as teams emerge from spring break, with Butler and Independence at 4-1. Each team’s league loss was to Porter Ridge.
Senior catcher Mikaela Smith and freshman outfielder Brianna Grant, products of the Mint Hill fast-pitch softball program, are among Independence’s leaders this season. Smith is batting .464, with five doubles and a home run. Grant is batting .519, with two doubles and two triples.
“It’s a different atmosphere this year,” Smith says. “In the past, we sometimes had trouble connecting. But coach has stressed the family attitude this year, and I think we’re closer.”
Adds Grant: “And the better we connect, the better we play.”
As a senior, Smith says she feels a need to show leadership.
“I’m basically calling the game from my position,” she says. “My job is to be a leader, play for the team.”
Larry says Smith has high expectations for herself: “I often can hear her directing the team.”
As a newcomer, Grant says her teammates have been great.
“They help me where I need it,” she says. “We get along together well.”
Both girls have connections to past Independence athletic success. Grant’s uncle, Tony Adams, is a former Patriots football standout and a starting offensive lineman at N.C. State. Smith’s mother, Kimberly Younts, was a member of a state softball championship at Independence in the early 1990s.
“Softball around here has been Independence and Butler for many years, and now Porter Ridge is part of that,” Larry says. “Our girls know the history. They want to maintain that.”
Key upcoming games
Tuesday: Butler at Independence
April 12: Porter Ridge at Independence
April 22: Butler at Porter Ridge
April 28: Independence at Butler