Smithfield: Sports

Softball preview: Softball is special in Johnston County

North Johnston’s Kaylynn Batten (2) hit .500 as a junior. She’s one of seven starters back in the Panther lineup.
North Johnston’s Kaylynn Batten (2) hit .500 as a junior. She’s one of seven starters back in the Panther lineup. DAMON THOMAS

High school softball is important in Johnston County.

A year ago, South Johnston, Princeton, West Johnston and Cleveland all made strong playoff runs and finished the season among the top seven teams in The News & Observer rankings.

Clayton, North Johnston, Princeton, South Johnston or West Johnston has reached the N.C. High School Athletic Association semifinals each year since 2010.

Johnston County teams are a combined 111-78 in the playoffs since the NCHSAA switched to the fast-pitch game in 1994. That means that that in an average year an average county team reaches the third round of the playoffs.

This season, Princeton, a 1A state semifinalist, returns seven starters, as does North Johnston, which is led by Longwood recruit Kaylynn Batten (a .500 hitter as a junior) and East Carolina recruit Olivia Narron. West Johnston has key leaders back in pitcher Megan Mills and .500-plus hitter Rachel Willis, a UNC Wilmington recruit.

So why does it keep happening year after year?

“The biggest thing is the dedication and parental involvement you see across the county,” said former North Johnston coach George Daniels. “This area has historically been that way for baseball, but they were quick to carry it over to softball especially when the sport went to fastpitch.”

It is those deep baseball roots that help as well.

“You had a lot of those (baseball) boys who grew up to be men and had daughters instead of sons,” said former South Johnston head coach Mickey Bridgers. “So they were funneling their interest into softball instead of baseball. But they kept some of that same intensity and approach to coaching they brought from baseball.”

Johnston County was also quick to make the flip to the fast-pitch game.

“Slowpitch softball in high school was more of a recreational event than it was a sport,” said Bridgers, who coached Northern Nash to a state slow-pitch softball championship in the 1970s. “I remember that transition from a previous coach to me at Northern Nash shook the girls somewhat, because of the way I had them work at the game.”

Daniels, who turned over the reigns to Chris Batten after last season after a 30-year run at North Johnston, believes the fast-pitch game changed the approach of girls in the area approach to the game.

“I think girls saw with the differences in fastpitch game that they were finally being treated as athletes in softball,” Daniels said. “Anybody could play slowpitch softball. You could play it till you were 90. Fast-pitch took athletes and the game was a lot more complex.”

And it was a game that required a higher level of dedication and commitment from its players and their support groups, namely their parents.

“We are fortunate to have the number of kids and parents who can put the travel time it takes in the fast-pitch game,” Batten said.

“One thing that makes Johnston County softball consistently at the top is its dedicated players all wanting to be their very best,” said Princeton coach Terry Braswell, who is now the longest tenured softball coach in the county. “Consistent coaching also plays a part.”

That consistency will get a test this season with four programs in the county debuting new head coaches.

Three assistant coaches have been promoted to head coaching positions: Chris Batten at North Johnston (replacing the retiring George Daniels), Amanda Smith at South Johnston (replacing the retiring Mickey Bridgers) and Britney Kudlawiec at Clayton. Laura Jefferson takes over at West Johnston, the county’s most consistent 4A program since its opening.

Three other schools have coaches in their second or third seasons: Cleveland (Samantha Coats, a former Clayton High standout), Corinth Holders (Jessica Potter) and Smithfield-Selma (Wes Hill).

Playing each other has helped Johnston teams as well.

South Johnston has typically played all seven Johnston County public schools each season. Princeton and North Johnston traditionally play a big contingent of 3A and 4A teams in non-conference play.

“When I took over, the conference we were in, there weren’t a lot of local teams in our conference so we scheduled the county schools out of convience,” Bridgers said. “But then you see that everybody in the county is competitive. And if you don’t have far to go to get great competition, all the better.”