By Troy Treasure
The 2020 North Shelby softball season held much promise. However, there always lurked the specter of COVID-19.
Following a season-opening 2-0 home victory against Brashear, reality hit. Several Lady Raiders endured a 14-day quarantine.
Two weeks later on Friday, Sept. 18, head coach Haley Hardy informed the team it was good-to-go for the following day’s North Shelby Tournament.
“I’m not going to lie,” Hardy said at the time. “Whenever they said everyone could come back Friday, I was like, ‘Alright, we’re going to have a tournament? Possibly playing three games?’”
“We were all extremely excited. Everyone was eager to see what we were bringing to the table, including the team knowing we were jumping right out of quarantine,” pitcher Natalie Thrasher said last week.
“Coming off the one short practice on Friday, there were a lot of nerves about how ready we actually were,” Thrasher continued, “but we were excited to play at that point because we didn’t know how many games we would get to play this season because of COVID.
“We had goals at the beginning of the year and winning the North Shelby Tournament was at the top of the list,” Thrasher added.
NS swept past Linn County, Clopton and Scotland County to win its own tournament for the first time since what is believed to be the mid-2000s.
“Winning our own tournament, especially under the circumstances we had been through, is a memory I will hold forever,” senior shortstop Lilly Cook said.
The achievement, and confluence of events involved, is the Herald’s 2020 Sports Story of the Year.
North Shelby opened the morning session with a 16-2 rout of Linn County.
The Lady Raiders defeated Clopton 8-3 in the semifinals. The Lady Raiders scored three third-inning runs. NS added four in the fourth.
Ceairra Kirby doubled to left leading off the third. She scored on Chesnie Robbins’ single. Cook followed with an RBI single down the left-field line and scored on Caroline Linberger’s infield base hit.
Thrasher and Linberger’s consecutive RBI doubles to center field highlighted the fourth inning.
Thrasher pitched a four-hitter with eight strikeouts and no walks.
Freshman catcher Marissa McEwen aided her pitcher in the fourth. Clopton had base runners at second and third with one out. McEwen dropped and blocked back-to-back pitches in the dirt.
North Shelby manufactured its 5-2 victory versus Scotland County in the championship game. The Lady Raiders plated single runs in the first, second and third innings, then added two in the fourth. Key hits for NS were Robbins’ lead-off triple in the first. Ava Williams blasted an RBI double in the second. Robbins scored again in the third on Linberger’s sacrifice fly.
North Shelby did its fourth-inning damage with two out.
McEwen ripped an RBI double to the center field fence. Robbins added an RBI single.
From the third inning on, Thrasher held Scotland County to two singles with six strikeouts. Her only walk was in the seventh inning.
“We pitched, we caught the ball, we hit the ball, we ran the bases,” Hardy said.
The tournament title was the start of an eight-game win streak that ended with a 6-0 loss to 2019 Class 1 state champion Salisbury in the Paris Tournament championship game. The Lady Panthers advanced to this year’s state semifinals.
Following Paris, the Lady Raiders went 4-2 – both loses by one run – before dropping a season-ending 6-4 contest to Scotland County in the District semifinals.
North Shelby finished 13-4, its first winning season since 2010.
“Every game day, our team was focused, prepared and had fun on the field,” Cook said. “This was the best season of softball I have ever been a part of, even with the two-week break in games at the beginning.
“It’s like the old saying goes, ‘You don’t know what you have until it’s gone,’” Cook added. “The uncertainty of the games was definitely unnerving, but it made us put our best foot forward when the opportunity to be on the field in competition arrived.”