Richmond softball primed to take the next step

Following her team’s loss to South Caldwell Friday night, Richmond Senior softball coach Wendy Wallace made a joke about having to break through the fourth-round ceiling now.

Despite being one of the top programs in the area under Wallace, Richmond could never get past the second round of the state 4A playoffs.

That is, until last season. That’s when Richmond smashed through the ceiling in a big way, posting victories over Clayton, Jack Britt and Ashley.

Led by five seniors — Ashton Davenport, Summer Jacobs, Hunter Parks, Jennifer Steen and Jessica Steen — last year’s team reeled off 28 straight wins before falling to Cape Fear in a battle of undefeated squads in the fourth round.

Wallace admitted she expected big things because those players had experience. Davenport and Jacobs were four-year varsity players. Parks and the Steen twins were on varsity for three seasons and part of another.

For years, Wallace’s teams were able to win conference regular-season and tournament titles, but couldn’t translate that success to the state tournament.

A look at Richmond’s postseason resume shows a lot of close losses in that so-frustrating second round.

In 2013, Richmond lost to West Johnston 2-1 at home. The season before that was a 2-1 extra-inning loss at Garner.

Apex knocked off Richmond in the first round 5-4 in 2011. Richmond also fell to Apex in the opening round in 2008.

Richmond fell to Ashley 5-3 in 2010 and New Bern topped Richmond 3-1 the season before, all in the second round.

Richmond reached the second round before being blanked by West Johnston 6-0 in 2007, Wallace’s first season leading the team.

Things turned around last season as Richmond knocked off Jack Britt 5-0 in the second round before eliminating Ashley 5-1 in the third.

In the snap of a finger, the jinx was gone. And if it weren’t for an unfortunate hop there and a bad bounce there against Cape Fear, Richmond may have been the team moving forward to the East Region final series.

Wallace wasn’t sure what to expect when this season started after the departure of her core players. She had a handful of key players — Chelsea Davis, Haleigh Denham, Doodle Jacobs and Katie Satterfield — coming back, but would they gel with a group of first-time starters?

The quick answer was yes.

Carleigh Haywood and Kelsey Mabe, along with Doodle Jacobs, gave Wallace a new weapon on offense — slap hitters.

Before the trio found their way into the lineup this season, in the past Richmond almost needed to put four singles together to score a run because of the lack of team speed.

Using their speed at the top of the order wasn’t the only way the Raiders could score — they also could swing a big stick. Davis and Satterfield combined to hit 16 of the team’s 22 home runs. New starters Owen Bowers and Peyton Fann combined to slug the other seven. Bowers hit five, including the game-winner against Scotland, ironically in the second round. Fann launched two, including a grand slam on the road against Hoke.

The duo of NaLee Jacobs and Makenzie Ward did a fine job of replacing last year’s SEC player of the year, Summer Jacobs, in the pitching circle.

Everything gelled and Richmond was a whisker away from getting to the West Region finals. The good news is that the core of this year’s team will be back. The better news is that Wallace sees a lot of talent in the pipeline for the next few years, so she will be able to reload rather than regroup.

That has been the one thing over the year that has hindered Richmond from being in the conversation with the likes of Alexander Central. The ability to slide a player of equal or better talent into the lineup after one graduates. Richmond has been blessed to have players like Brittany Tedder, Amanda Terry, Maggie McKenzie, Maxie Poole, Casey Snead, Cierra Bowden and Summer Jacobs throughout the years, but rarely has replacements in the pipeline.

Now it does and Wallace is excited for the future and making that next step on the playoff ladder.

Reach managing editor Shawn Stinson at 910-817-2671 and follow him on Twitter @scgolfer.