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A pair of sophomores experienced in their sport far beyond their years landed the top 2018 3-A Big East Conference softball awards.
Bri Tucker, a sophomore from third-place Hunt High, repeated as player of the year, while Carrigan Ewers, a sophomore from regular-season and tournament champion Southern Nash, was proclaimed the pitcher of the year.
Southern Nash head coach Scott Collie was recognized as the champion coach of the year.
Tucker and Ewers headline a 20-player all-conference lineup that includes six selections off the championship Ladybirds squad.
Joining Ewers from Southern Nash are freshman twins Taylor and Alissa Bailey, sophomore Elisabeth Collie, senior Lauren Fassnacht and freshman Kiersten Cooper.
Runner-up Fike landed freshman Caitlyn Graziani, sophomore Hailey Hammonds, junior Leann Pittman and junior Kailyn Terry.
Chosen from Hunt along with Tucker were junior Allyson Matthews, senior Julianne Etheridge and sophomore Destiny Norris.
Completing the all-star lineup are Jenna McKenney, Brooke Taylor and Alexis Ricks of Northern Nash; sophomore Riannia Layton and freshman Shelby Sykora of Franlklnton and senior Courtney Coley of Rocky Mount.
Accorded honorable mention were Southern Nash’s Leanna Ruffin, Fike’s Michaela Lockridge, Hunt’s McKenzie House, Northern Nash’s Alyssa Day, Franklinton’s Courtney Sabatini and Rocky Mount’s Kharisma Harrison.
Southern Nash (22-5) and Fike (16-8) advanced into the second round of the North Carolina High School Athletic Association 3-A playoffs, while Hunt (12-13) and fourth-place Northern Nash exited in the opening round.
Tucker again solidified the Lady Warriors infield at shortstop, possessing speed, tremendous range and a strong throwing arm. She excelled as Hunt’s lead-off hitter, averaging more than a stolen base per game, utilizing her speed for hustle hits and demonstrating the ability to hit with power.
In 10 conference games, Tucker batted .421 with a .541 on-base percentage. Her 28 hits included eight doubles, three triples and three home runs. Tucker scored 35 runs, drove in 22 and stole 22 bases.
“I was excited,” the 16-year-old Tucker, who has played softball since age 7, said of repeating as player of the year. “I didn’t think I was going to get it a second time.
“I had a pretty good season, but it could have been better. Some games, we played well but, some games, we didn’t play as a team. I was hoping we would at least make it to the playoffs.
Tucker, whose favorite position is third base, declares she is all about team and not personal goals.
“But it feels good,” she added of her individual recognition. I try my hardest every time I go out and play.”
First-year head coach Miguel Hall contended the Lady Warriors were almost guaranteed a run when Tucker got on base.
“She was the engine that made us run,” he assured.. “She has the instinct for playing the game and playing it the right way.”
Said Southern Nash’s Collie of Tucker: “She is a great player and deserves everything she gets.”
SUPER AS SOPH
Like Tucker, Ewers demonstrated her sensational freshman season was no fluke. After tossing six shutouts as a freshman, the 15-year-old right-hander responded with seven as a sophomore. She posted a 14-4 record with a 1.53 earned run average. In 96 innings, Ewers registered 140 strikeouts and just 39 walks.
During one stretch, Ewers pitched five consecutive shutouts and 39 scoreless innings in a row. Her complete games totaled 14 and her pitching anchored the Ladybirds’ 16-game win streak. Following Southern Nash’s loss to Fike in its conference opener, Ewers yielded but one earned run the remainder of league play and no-hitted Northern Nash.
“She had a phenomenal year,” Collie expressed. “She was even more dominant in the conference. I am really proud of her.
“Early in the season, she was kind of struggling to find her form. After we lost to Fike, she came back with a one-hit shutout against Hunt. That kick-started her year. It was lights out from there. She concentrated more on trying to get ahead in the count instead of how hard she was throwing, and we started playing better defense.”
Ewers’ repertoire included a fastball, change-up, curve, screwball, rise ball and drop ball.
A softball player since age 4, Ewers didn’t deny being hailed the Big East’s top pitcher was a goal.
“I set the goal preseason,” she revealed. “I worked really hard to get it, and I’m glad I did. I just pitched my game and worked the defense behind me. We did this together.”
Personally, said Ewers, the turnaround occurred after she allowed a first-inning run against Franklinton. She pitched shutout softball the rest of the game, launching her scoreless-innings string.
“It was time to worry about spin and hitting my spots instead of speed,” Ewers explained. “Then, late in the season, the speed came with the spin.
“I just wish the beginning of the season could have been better. It all didn’t really come together until at the end of the season.”
Of expectations her final two varsity seasons, Ewers declared: “I expect to grow and get better. I expect more from myself. We are striving for a state championship.”
Ewers also batted .358 for the Ladybirds, while Collie was the pacesetter with a .483 average, 43 hits, eight doubles and 31 RBIs. Fassnacht hit .429 with two homers. Taylor Bailey batted at a .388 clip with four triples, while Alissa Bailey owned a .377 average. Cooper wound up with a .366 average and combined with Ewers to pitch a no-hitter.
Pacing Fike was Pittman with a .463 average, 11 doubles and 29 RBIs. Graziani hit .411 with 16 RBIs and 12 stolen bases. Hammonds batted .446, while Terry managed a .380 norm. In the circle, Pittman went 10-5 with a 3.74 ERA and 11 complete games.
For Hunt, Etheridge batted a torrid .458 in conference games, while Matthews batted .342 and Norris .329..
Collie noted the buzzwords that have identified him in past coaching endeavors are “serious, disciplined and focused.”
“But I had to adapt this year,” he admitted. “I figured out this team played better when they were loose and I was loose.”
Collie directed the Ladybirds to conference supremacy in his second season.
“I knew we would be talented but really young,” he said. “We were depending on a lot of younger players to play really big roles.
“The big thing was everybody buying in. (The four) seniors were unselfish and showed a lot of leadership. They had a team-first attitude. Everybody could do something to help us win that night.
Collie reasoned his biggest responsibility was “to manage the kids — put them in a good place emotionally and mentally, and make certain each person feels valued and important.”