Central Cabarrus softball

The Central Cabarrus softball team meets for its final postgame huddle after losing to Eastern Alamance in the Class 3A state championship series at UNC Greensboro.

GREENSBORO – Winners.

Throughout time, Merriam-Webster and virtually anyone attending a sporting event have usurped the word, limiting its meaning, implying it can only equal one thing.

C. Jemal Horton

Sports editor, C. Jemal Horton

jhorton@independenttribune.com

But every once in a while, someone comes kicks down the door and exposes others to a new way of seeing the world – or at least their small corner of it.

And that’s what the 2019 Central Cabarrus softball team did during its inspiring run to becoming … Class 3A state runner-up.

That’s right: The Vikings didn’t win their best-of-3 series with Eastern Alamance over the weekend, and it hurt like a son-of-gun. Their sobs, their hanging heads, their outright heartbreak revealed that after they lost Game 3 in extra innings Sunday at UNC Greensboro Softball Stadium.

But while the Eastern Alamance Eagles – the “winners” of the state title – celebrated with their fans and the championship plaque, the Vikings walked off the field having accomplished more than they ever thought possible in their teenage years.

If this team isn’t a bunch of winners, I don’t know what is.

I won’t sit here and insult your intelligence by trying to portray Central as the underdog. No, people in Cabarrus County knew the Vikings were good. They entered this season as reigning South Piedmont 3A Conference regular-season and tournament champions, and they had a strong corps of players that most teams around would die to have.

But in tournament formats – whether it’s at the pro, college or high school level – the best team doesn’t always win it all.

And let’s be honest: When a team is really good, many people tend to resent it because of the perception that it’s arrogant or has an unfair advantage.

And let’s be even more honest: Some folks just get plain jealous.

But the 2019 Vikings managed to overcome such ills of the sport, and it’s a true testament to their character.

They were the favored team in the SPC, and they came out and backed it up, winning both the league’s championships for a second year in a row. As the No. 2 seed, they tore through the state playoffs by dumping the best teams in the West, and even people affiliated with different schools in Cabarrus County seemed to respect them for it, publicly offering support as the Vikings went deeper into the postseason.

In high school sports, that’s a rarity. I’ve seen husbands and wives refuse to root for the other spouse’s team under any circumstances, and younger folks can be even pettier sometimes.

But the 2019 Vikings, again, were one of those rare teams. And through broken hearts and a sea of tears Sunday, they tried to take time to appreciate what they’d done.

“Right now, obviously it hurts, because we’re so close,” said senior Destiny Thornton. “But I feel like I’m crying because this great ride I’ve had for the past four years is over now.”

For a few moments, Thornton had to take a break, weeping even harder, as if hearing her own words out loud brought even more agony.

But like the hard-nosed first baseman and clean-up batter she is, Thornton gathered herself and showed her appreciation – for her school, for her county, and for her team’s magical run.

“The Viking Nation that we have, all the fans,” Thornton said, “they were always there to support us, all the teachers walking around the school congratulating us after a big win. And then all of Cabarrus County was behind us, and that was special. It’s like that extra support from your own little family. It’s a lifetime experience that everyone deserves to get, and I’m just so blessed to have had that.

“We have heart, and that’s one reason I’m proud to say that I’m a part of Central softball,” she added. “We’re one big family, one big heartbeat.”

Their collective heart was on full display as they came up here and fought for the school’s first state crown in 14 years.

The Vikings got pretty much handled in Game 1, producing a paltry two hits against talented Eastern Alamance freshman pitcher Kenna Raye Dark in a 3-0 loss – only the second time Central had been shut out all season.

A few hours later on Saturday, in a Game 2 meeting, Central coach Charlie Blackwelder gave his hitters advice: choke up on the bat and move up in the batter’s box to keep Dark from working the outside corner so effectively.

It worked, and when the day ended, the Vikings had become the first team to get double-digit hits against Dark, posted a 5-1 victory, and a guaranteed a date for Game 3 on Sunday afternoon.

Things didn’t start out that great in the decisive game, and the Vikings found themselves down a run in the bottom half of the seventh inning. Central had only two hits at the time, and one of them came on a blast from sophomore catcher Christina Brendle a few innings earlier.

Brendle didn’t homer this time, but she smacked another ball deep and ran fast enough to reach third base, setting up Baily Ruble’s squeeze bunt that sent her home for the tying run.

The Vikings had been a symbol of perseverance and passion all season, and that didn’t change just because a few thousand people were watching with everything on the line.

Of course, Central’s rally fell short in the extra inning, with the Eagles using a two-run homer and more sharp pitching from Dark to win their first state title.

The Vikings’ season was done but not their story. Even without state title rings, this is a journey that will be recounted for a long time. Central Cabarrus is the county’s only public school ever to win a state championship in softball, but the 2019 squad that didn’t should be just as critical to the school’s athletic lore.

North Carolina High School 3A Softball State Playoffs

Central Cabarrus softball players Lexi Butcher (left) and Lacie Coubal console each other after their loss in the state championship.

Because of its grace, both winning and losing, and the way it allowed local softball fans to dream during the spring for the first time in a long time.

So with their runners-up medals draped over their necks, Blackwelder took the Vikings into left field Sunday afternoon and poured out his heart to a team that will always have it.

“It was pretty emotional,” Blackwelder said. “I put my seniors to one side and talked about each one of them and how much they meant to our program. There were a lot of tears shed in that huddle, because those girls have been with me for four years. They’ve given more than blood, sweat and tears; they’ve given me their hearts. I really mean that.

“Those kids are unselfish. They don’t care who gets the attention. They’ve been a joy and a pleasure for me to coach, and I’m going to miss them extremely.”

Several minutes later, with his bawling players in the background, the fifth-year coach recalled Central’s first day of practice this season.

“It was a journey that started on Aug. 21, 2018,” he said. “We started practicing when it was hot, then it was cold, now it’s hot again. To get to this point, it takes an unbelievable amount of hard work. You’ve got to be good, and you’ve got to be lucky, but I look back on this season and how hard these kids worked, and it’s been a super ride. They’ve taken me on a journey that we might not do again.

“I don’t know,” he continued. “There’s a lot of good teams (in the state) that aren’t here. You just never know how long it takes to get back here.”

Blackwelder is as decorated as Cabarrus County softball coaches come, having won championships in travel, high school and American Legion ball. But this group of girls, well, takes a backseat to none of those teams.

“This is a team that I’ll keep close to my heart,” Blackwelder said. “I’ve had a lot of good teams before, but this one’s special, just because of how we fought and what it took to get to this point.”

Blackwelder sniffs, in the cool way that only he can, as he’s fighting back tears.

“Yeah,” he begins, before his voice trails off and his dark sunglasses turn toward UNC Greensboro’s softball field for possibly the last time.

“Yeah,” he repeats, clearing his voice. “I’m proud of these girls. Super, super proud of these girls. They’re just special.”

There’s no arguing: On this day, the Eastern Alamance Eagles were the champions.

But the Central Cabarrus Vikings – and the county and the school and the parents they represented on this journey – definitely were winners.

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