By TOM BONE
Bluefield Daily Telegraph
VIENNA — The rite of passage of high school graduation is an emotional time for any student. Adding the championship game of the state softball tournament to that timeframe intensified those feelings this week for the James Monroe Lady Mavericks’ seniors.
“It was hard to believe that this is it — and now it’s all over,” said senior Kelsie Gillespie, choking up after the team’s loss to two-time champion Wayne High School on Thursday afternoon.
The team had figured from their first day together that this should be the year that they could make a run to the state tournament. Gillespie said, “We had our hopes on it, but it never really sunk in ‘til tournament time.”
She said about the many underclassmen on the team, “I believe they can make it here again.”
Fellow senior Mikayla Wickline, the team’s ace pitcher, said that reaching the state title game “feels really good. At the beginning of the season, I never would have thought we would have got this far. But we did, and it’s a major accomplishment.”
“And I know that next year, the girls will be back up here, and will be back in the running for a state title.”
Gillespie, with a season batting average above .300, was a key component of James Monroe’s 25-7 record. She started the season at first base, and moved to catcher when fellow senior Jenna Hancock suffered a season-ending knee injury.
“I’ve been a catcher, practically my whole life,” Gillespie said. “Stepping in, it was difficult, but I just tried to keep myself grounded, and follow through.”
She was comfortable receiving pitches from Wickline, who struck out 211 batters this spring in 110 1/3 innings.
“I’ve been with her ever since Little League, so we have a good connection,” Gillespie said.
Hancock was on hand, too, in the dugout at Vienna to support her team. She took the field during pre-game introductions, walking out with the assistance of a metal crutch.
The Lady Mavs fell 5-1 in the championship contest to the Pioneers. Wickline allowed four singles and a late solo home run, and struck out nine Wayne batters in six innings. In fact, she put in 14 innings of work in the pitcher’s circle on Thursday.
Wayne pitcher Jessie Rowe had a no-hitter going until the seventh, when James Monroe got a double from Samantha Ferguson and a single by Wickline.
Wickline said about the pitching in that game, “She (Rowe) pitched well. She did what she needed to do for her team, and I tried to do what I needed to for mine. We just fell short a couple of runs. Things happen.”
“I was hoping that we could bring in the runs, but we didn’t. But that’s OK; we did our best. We came out and did what we could do, and it ended the way it ended.”
“I worked as hard as I could, all through my softball career, and did everything I possibly could think of,” Wickline said. “And I’m here. And I’m happy with what I’ve accomplished.”
For the underclassmen, there is more they hope to accomplish.
Third baseman Laine Shiflet made the all-tournament team after displaying hustle and quick reactions on defense, and hitting the ball hard at the plate, though that did not always translate into hits in the state tourney. The sophomore came into the tournament with a .493 batting average.
First baseman Ferguson, a junior, drove in 28 runs this season and joined Shiflet and Wickline on the all-tournament team. She said that getting to the title game “means a lot to me, because James Monroe’s never done this before. I mean, they came, but they never accomplished that much. It means a lot to me because we accomplished it.”
Second baseman Hillary Hersman is a junior with a .360 average. Shortstop Rebecca Ratliff is a sophomore who batted .411. She also was 8-2 as a pitcher this season.
It will be hard to follow up a year like Wickline had, but Ratliff will be able to count on her teammates’ support, Ferguson said.
“I think the pitching will be a little bit more of a struggle,” Ferguson said. “But Rebecca Ratliff is a really good pitcher, and she’ll pull through. And if we have her back, and our hits keep on, we can be here next year.”
The all-freshman outfield is expected back as well, already a cohesive unit. Center fielder Bailee Jackson, the Lady Mavs’ leadoff batter, said, “We are very close. We can predict what each other is going to do.”
James Monroe head coach Greg Wickline said, “We lose a pitcher and catcher off our starting lineup and both of them will be pretty difficult to replace. But it’s a good group of girls. We’re young. We start three freshmen ... .”
“They should be pretty good next year, we’re hoping.”
Gillespie said about her coaches, “They worked us really hard. Even though sometimes they were rough on us, they got us this far, so — it’s good.”
Wayne High head coach Tish Smith was talking about her team after the finale on Thursday, but could just as well have been talking about James Monroe, when she said, “They’ve seen it. They’ve learned what needs to be done.”
— Contact Tom Bone
By TOM BONE
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