Lady Kavs win softball state title

Published 5:05 pm Friday, May 24, 2019

To anyone who might have thought that Kenston Forest School’s varsity softball team was too young this year to win a state championship against senior-laden No. 1 Fuqua School, the Lady Kavaliers were not on the same page.

Deciding the future is now, the No. 4 Lady Kavs came back from a 2-1 deficit in the top of the seventh inning to upset the defending champion Lady Falcons 3-2 on Friday in the Virginia Independent Schools Athletic Association Division III state championship at RF&P Park in Glen Allen.

Kenston Forest last won a softball state title in 2014. This was its first under Head Coach Jannon Coley.

Asked what her players’ epic win means to her, Coley said, “It really means a lot. It means their hard work and dedication has really paid off. They’re a great team, and they have worked really hard together this season.”

Kenston Forest took an early 1-0 lead that stood until the fourth inning when Fuqua was able to tie the game.

Lady Kavaliers freshman pitcher Shelby Gunn, who effectively bottled up the Lady Falcons’ potent offense for five innings, allowed a two-out walk with the bases loaded in the sixth that accounted for the brief 2-1 deficit.

In the top of the seventh, with Fuqua one out away from victory, sophomore catcher/outfielder Molly Epperson hit a double that scored eighth-grade catcher/outfielder Avery Tucker and junior shortstop Peyton Coleman.

Junior pitcher Rachael Tucker and the Lady Kavs defense followed Gunn’s lead, containing the Lady Falcons to record three more outs and cue the celebration.

The victory represented a complete fulfillment of what the Lady Kavaliers set out to do this year.

“We had two goals in mind, and the first goal was to win the conference, and we did that,” Coley said. “We didn’t do it the easy way. I always laugh about that, but we did do it. We lost a few and won a few, but we won the one that counted. And then our next goal was to win the state. And before the season ever began, we sat down, and we said, ‘This is what we want to do.’ And so they accomplished both of those, so I think that in itself, them accomplishing their goals and their dreams and just working together, that to me is what makes it such a special season for them.”

The outcome of this year’s state final was in marked contrast to last year’s game in which the Lady Falcons ran away with a 17-2 victory against young Kenston Forest.

Coley noted what changed about the Lady Kavs from 2018 to 2019.

“I just think we’re stronger as a team than we were last year,” she said. “We’re stronger pitching, we’re stronger hitting-wise, and we’re stronger defensively. I just think all three of those and it all clicked at the right time, and I think that is what really won that championship for us.”

She recalled what proved to be the pivotal moment of the game in the top of the seventh inning when Fuqua was an out away from a repeat.

“I go back and I think about Molly being the batter with two outs and two runners on — I could not have picked a better batter to be up there, and I have full confidence in her, and when she got up there and hit that and made us have the lead, that was pretty awesome,” Coley said. “The hitting, the pitching, the defense — all of it came in at the right time. We peaked at the right time, and I think that’s what made the difference.”

Kenston Forest recorded five hits in the game. Epperson went 2-for-3, eighth-grade outfielder/pitcher Mackenzie Newcomb went 2-for-4, and sophomore center fielder Berkley Rose went 1-for-3 with one run scored.

Gunn was outstanding in the circle, allowing only one hit while throwing four strikeouts in 5 2/3 innings.

“Shelby pitched the day before when we played (Brunswick Academy) in the state (semifinals), and I tell you what, she did a wonderful job,” Coley said.

The Lady Kavs defeated their archrivals, the No. 2 Lady Vikings, 9-2 in the semifinal game, avoiding the back-and-forth nature of the conference title game featuring the same two teams.

Leading the way on offense for Kenston Forest in the semifinal contest was Newcomb, who went 3-for-4. Coleman went 2-for-4, and Rachael Tucker went 1-for-2. The team finished with 10 hits in the game.

“I just thought everybody was on,” Coley said. “We were on with our pitching, we were pretty much on with our hitting, and we were relaxed. We were relaxed and focused, so I think that made the difference.”

Gunn threw eight strikeouts against Brunswick.

“(Shelby) pitched all seven innings, and then we had talked about the next day,” Coley said. “‘Hey if she gets in trouble, what are we going to do?’ And we talked about who we might want to go with. And she lasted (five) and 2/3 innings, so I couldn’t have asked for anything better than that.

“And then my relief pitcher, Rachael (Tucker), coming in — I tell you what, she did phenomenal,” the coach continued, speaking of the state title game. “To come in on the mound with two outs, bases loaded, and they had already scored one run to take that lead, so I think for her to come in and do that, finish that inning and finish the next one, hey, that was great.”

Another key difference from the 2018 Lady Kavs to the 2019 Lady Kavs was the addition of Coleman, who transferred in from Brunswick Academy.

“Last year in our conference, she was Player of the Year,” Coley said. “This year, I think she probably should have been. That’s just my opinion. But she just has a presence. I haven’t had that presence on the softball field since I had one of my seniors, Brooke Mason. I think that she’s just in charge of the whole team. So if she’s in the infield, she plays shortstop for us, but she gets the team going. She tries to get them up. She’s always positive, and she tries to make sure she keeps them positive and going. If they need to hear something, she will make sure she lets them know what they need to do. When you have somebody like that (who) does that on the team, it makes a huge difference. Her ability right there is just phenomenal.”

Coleman was euphoric and unwaveringly team-focused when describing what it meant to her to be a state champion.

“It’s insane, and just coming in with this team, there is nobody else I’d rather be with,” she said. “We never gave up in the entire thing, and that’s something that really put us through …”

As Coley talked about different standouts on her team, she took a moment to highlight Newcomb.

“Every time she was up to bat, she had a phenomenal hit, and she always brought us out of situations,” the coach said. “We might have two outs in a situation, and she would hit a line drive and just change everything up for the rest of the inning. So, she’s done that on several occasions, and she’s got a great glove in the outfield. She also is one of my relief pitchers, so she’ll come in and pitch some for me. I expect great things from her in the future. She’s really, really good.”

Kenston Forest was not completely free from injuries this season, but backups were ready to step up.

“I had Avery Tucker, who’s an eighth-grader, step in and become our catcher after Molly Epperson injured her finger,” Coley said. “So Molly wasn’t able to play some of the games, and Avery did a great job behind the plate.”

Junior Haley Henshaw was sidelined by injury this season but was still with her team, supporting it, and Coley said she is looking forward to having Henshaw back on the field next year.

The Lady Kavs, which finished with a 26-7 overall record this year, enjoyed important contributions from the entire roster. The squad’s lone senior, Rachel Moore, played at first base, freshman Taylor Maione was at second and Rachael Tucker was often at third. Sophomore Mallory Barnes and freshman Gracie Gunn were call-ups from the junior varsity team and contributed in the outfield.

“It’s a great team,” Coley said. “The chemistry there was phenomenal. They all got along, they all jelled, and you just can’t ask for anything better. That (was) hands down probably one of the best seasons I’ve ever had.”