WAXHAW – Central Cabarrus softball coach Charlie Blackwelder has said this current Vikings team is the most together group he’s had as a head coach. Never was that more evident than early in the day Friday.
With a chance to clinch a spot in the 3A state championship this past Thursday, Central was sloppy at Viking Stadium in a 5-2 loss to Marvin Ridge in Game 2 of their best-of-3 West Region final series. Miscues on the bases and in the field, along with an offense that could only produce four hits, forced the Vikings to travel back to Union County against the region’s top seed on its home field for a second time in four days.
The Vikings were down. A spark was needed, something that could provide a jolt of confidence.
Enter Riley Tucker.
The senior, who has been the team’s best player for years, called her teammates into a room Friday afternoon before they were to leave for the series’ third and deciding game.
“She showed us this video, and it was all motivational,” freshman Brantleigh Parrott said. “And we all had to come together as a team.”
The impact was significant. The team pounded out 14 hits to beat the Mavericks, 11-8, Friday and clinch a place in the 3A softball state championship series. The Vikings will take on Eastern Alamance in a best-of-3 series, which begins Friday at UNC Greensboro. Game 1 is at 5 p.m.
Tucker said getting the team’s confidence back was the goal of the video.
“We were pretty down (Thursday) after (the Mavericks) beat us at our place,” Tucker said. “You could just tell in the dugout. We weren’t as up as we were in the first game.”
Perhaps no player epitomized the closeness of this team more than Tucker. The most heralded of the Vikings, Tucker was coming off a season in which she was the South Piedmont 3A Conference Pitcher of the Year and was selected to the all-state team for a third straight season.
But when a groin injury started to affect her ability to dominate on the mound, Tucker went to Blackwelder in early March and suggested moving to the field and letting Parrott become the regular starting pitcher.
“It was rough,” Tucker said of her struggles pitching with her injury. “I had lost so much confidence in my pitching because I wasn’t the pitcher of the year anymore. But I knew Brantleigh was such a good pitcher, I just said, ‘Let’s do this.’”
Parrott has been simply dominating in her role, posting an 18-2 record with a 1.57 ERA. And a healthier and more confident Tucker continued to be arguably the best hitter in the county, with a .544 batting average, seven home runs and 55 RBIs in just 30 games.
The Vikings’ other slugger in the lineup, senior first baseman Destiny Thornton, said the players’ commitment to the program year-round was another big reason this team is still playing at the end of May.
“We start as soon as school starts, with whatever workouts we’re allowed to do,” Thornton said. “It’s been almost a year of working out together. Everyone comes out at least once a week to work out. And as long as we’re working out, we’re gelling together.”
Blackwelder said the importance of the Vikings’ success against SPC rival A.L. Brown this season cannot be understated as a reason for his team’s confidence.
“We beat (A.L. Brown) in four of five meetings this season,” Blackwelder said. “And I think that was a big part of our season. That showed the kids how good they could be, because A.L. Brown was a really good team.”
After losing six seniors from last season’s SPC championship team, even Blackwelder wasn’t sure what would be in store in 2019.
“We always try to make our expectations high,” Blackwelder said. “But realistically, if we could win the conference and the conference tournament, gosh, that would be a big deal.
“And now here we are, West Region champs, heading to the states and two wins away from being state champions.”