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.
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.”
Deep baseball roots help, too.
“You had a lot of those (baseball) boys who grew up to be men and had daughters instead of sons,” said former South Johnston 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 1987. “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 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 group, namely their parents.
“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.”
Playing each other has helped Johnston County teams as well.
South Johnston has typically played the other seven Johnston County public schools each season. Princeton and North Johnston, both 1A schools, 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 convenience,” 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.”
Teams to watch
Apex (15-5): Six starters return for the Cougars, including catcher Kaitlyn Long, shortstop Cassie Healy and outfielder Bailey Hathaway.
Bunn (19-4): The Wildcats reached the third round of the 2A playoffs before being eliminated by Elizabeth City’s Northeastern 8-4.
Fuquay-Varina (17-5): Veteran coach Deb Clarke (308-84) has eight starters returning. Among the veterans are third baseman Logan Bowling (Salem College), catcher Megan Tarpey (Meredith), centerfielder Aleyah Evans (N.C. Central), pitcher Kaitlan Smith (UNC Pembroke) and shortstop Ashlyn Long (Western Carolina).
Garner (19-3): The Trojans’ season came to an abrupt stop when Leesville Road, the No. 3 seed from the Cap Eight, claimed a 5-1 win.
Granville Central (20-4): The Panthers bring back pitcher Taylor Bailey and second baseman Megan Taylor.
Jordan-Matthews (24-6): The 2A state runner-up brings back N&O player of the year Holly Clark, a junior who pitched three perfect games and six no-hitters. She struck out 239.
Leesville Road (13-5): The Pride was third seed from the Cap Eight, but went to the third round with pitcher Avery Morris.
Middle Creek (21-4): The 4A East runner-up returns junior pitcher Devin Wallace, who was 14-3 with 162 strikeouts. She is committed to Coastal Carolina. Also back are all-state selections pitcher Kiley Majette (Winthrop recruit) and outfielder Megan Walker (Appalachian State). Shortstop Alie Burghart, outfielder Rachael Klass and third baseman Lily Morris also are back.
Millbrook (14-9): Shortstop Devin Williams is a two-time all-state selection and is joined by all-state picks second baseman Catherine Collins and catcher Emiley Burriss. Seven starters are back.
North Johnston (16-6): The Panthers return seven starters, five of whom hit .300 or more last season. Longwood recruit Kaylynn Batten hit .500 with 39 RBI. Olivia Narron is an East Carolina recruit.
Northwood (20-2): The Big 8 champ Chargers return eight all-district players: Anna Jasper, Alexa Bernard, Ally McKee, McKenzie Allgood, Carson Shaner, Payton Springle, Kali Blankenship and Courtney Wilson.
Princeton (19-6): The 1A East runnerup returns seven starters.
South Granville (16-3): The Vikings were ousted in the second round of the playoffs by powerhouse Wilson Beddingfield but return a solid core, led by Miranda Barker. Erin Boone, Abbi Colclough, Karlee Michalina, Savannah Tilley and Hunter Mundy also return.
South Johnston (23-5): Amanda Smith is the new coach for the 3A East runnerup, who return first baseman Madison Byrd.
Wake Forest (16-2-1): Senior Anna Wolf returns for the Cougars. She hit .526 with four home runs, eight doubles and 23 RBIs. The Cougars were upset in the first round of the 2014 playoffs by Panther Creek 4-2.
West Johnston (16-7): Greater Neuse River Conference champs bring back star junior pitcher Megan Mills (116 strikeouts, 0.40 ERA) as well as senior slugger Rachel Willis (.522, 31 RBIs, five triples, four home runs).
Players to watch
Sarah Aukamp, So., Panther Creek: All-state selection.
Cameron Cook, Jr. Green Hope: Led Falcons to 13-8 record.
Mia Davidson, Soph., Orange: Slugged 12 home runs, batted .522.
English Dean, Sr., Broughton: Pitt Community College recruit.
Erica Hayes, Sr., Cary: Western Carolina recruit.
Callie Horn, Sr., Northern Durham: Elon recruit.
Jordan Gontram, Jr., Heritage: Hit .500 with 42 RBIs for the Huskies.
Elizabeth Pederson, Jr., Cardinal Gibbons: Hit .607 and stole 26 bases.
Sydney Rush, Sr, Panther Creek: Helped Catamounts get first playoff win.
Priscila Sanchez, Sr., Cary: Louisburg College recruit
Abby Snidemiller, Sr., Holly Springs: Four-year starter for Golden Hawks (8-12).
MyKaela Watt, Jr., East Chapel Hill: Her .724 batting average was among the best ever in the state. Stole 27 bases.
Laura Williams, Sr., Heritage: Belmont Abbey recruit.