DENVER – This season is following a not-so-unfamiliar blueprint for the Lincoln Charter softball team, which has become a mainstay among the top 1A schools in the state since Taylor Putnam took over as coach during the 2013 season.
That year the Eagles opened with a loss and ran off 21 straight wins before an untimely playoff exit dashed their hopes.
Since then, the Eagles have reached 20 wins every year but one and have been known to produce long winning streaks like the 12-game one in 2015 that propelled the Eagles to within one win of playing for the state championship.
All six of this year’s upperclassmen were on that team – and they remember the feeling of both getting on that streak and having it come to an end against Hiwassee Dam.
“We are all on the same page this year, and we all have the same goals,” said junior slugger Chloe Johnson. “My freshman year we were so close, and we all wanted the state championship. We were in the Final Four and were so close, but it slipped away. For the upperclassmen, that is what’s driving us, and I think the underclassmen get that vibe from us because we’re all so close. I think we just want to win and leave it all out there.”
As the playoffs draw near, the Eagles are once again stating their case that they are taking their rightful place among the top teams in the state.
This year’s team again feels young, as just four of the Eagles top 11 hitters are upperclassmen, and just one – Lilly Pressley – is a senior.
“Lilly has really stepped up this year,” said junior pitcher Reah Barger. “She’s a senior and has always been a vocal leader, but now she’s taken more control. She’s done a really good job.”
But the Eagles say having a senior leader to count on is just one of the reasons why they’ve won the Southern Piedmont for all five of Putnam’s seasons leading the charge.
And this year’s title seems even sweeter to the Eagles.
“We’re a lot closer this year than we have been in the past,” Johnson said. “We’re friends more this year outside of softball. I won’t say we’ve been forced into team bonding in the past, but this year we had a team-bonding event scheduled, but since our basketball team did so well we wanted to support them and didn’t go through with it. I don’t think we needed it because for some reason we’ve been a lot closer this year.”
The togetherness has taken a hold as the season has gone on. In addition to the regular season title, the Eagles have won 10 straight, including the SPC tournament title as they enter the postseason as hot as any team in the state.
“I think we’ve really focused in more as the season has gone on,” Barger said. “As we go into the playoffs it’s nerve-wracking for me because we want to get really far, but at the same time we have to focus on just one game at a time, like coach says.”
The Eagles have plenty of reasons to think their season can continue long into the postseason.
Johnson is having another huge year at the plate, and leads the team in the power categories with 39 RBIs, nine home runs and three grand slams.
But, like has always been the case over the previous five years, the Eagles lineup is a potent mix of speed, power and consistency.
Freshman Hallie Mele has stood out in the star freshman role that Johnson held on the 2015 team.
This year Mele leads the team with a .491 batting average and has been a constant producer with 30 runs scored, seven extra-base hits and 21 RBIs.
Junior Sara Kalinowski is batting .482 with 13 RBIs; Pressley is batting .418 with 27 runs scored and a team-best 10 stolen bases; sophomore Nikki Sparkman is hitting .415 with nine extra-base hits, including five home runs and 26 RBIs; Kaitlyn Wiltshire hits .354 with 14 RBIs; Barger is batting .340 with nine extra-base hits, including two home runs; and Taylor Gunter is hitting .318 with 14 RBIs.
Together they lead a proficient offense that is scoring more than 10 runs per game.
“There is not a hole in this lineup and that has definitely been the best part of our offense,” Johnson said.
While the offense has been outstanding all season so, too, has the pitching.
Barger is the primary pitcher this season and is 13-3 with a 2.30 ERA. She’s thrown a career-high 82 innings this season with 12 complete games, three shutouts and 101 strikeouts against just 26 walks.
“As a pitcher, this offense really helps me because I know they have my back,” she said. “It cuts down on the pressure on me, and I know I don’t have to go out there and strike out everyone or anything. It gives me a ton of confidence throwing with them behind me.”
When Barger isn’t in the circle, Mele is. The freshman has seven appearances with four starts and is 2-0 with a 1.03 ERA and 33 strikeouts with just four walks in 20.1 innings pitched. She has allowed just nine hits during that time and threw a three-inning perfect game against Piedmont Charter, striking out all nine batters in the contest.
With the great pitching, loaded lineup that seemingly has no holes and a defense behind it that commits less than one error per game, there is little wonder why the Eagles are marching into this week’s playoffs riding high.
They have what it takes at every facet to make a playoff run, and that’s what they intend to do.
But, the players say, Putnam won’t let them get ahead of themselves. She reminds them that three of their four losses have come to teams that have a combined 38-24 record and that every game is important and can’t be taken lightly.
“This season we’ve had some crazy losses, and coach likes to point that out to let us know we’re not always on top,” Johnson said. “Highland Tech beat us and that was shocking to us, but we’ve had other upsets like that throughout the whole conference season. It goes to prove that anyone can win any game, and we need to remember that.”
But the talented Eagles know they can beat anyone as well, and plan on showing their dominance in the postseason.
“We just have to keep doing what we’re doing and don’t try to press because that’s a big thing that I think we do at times,” Barger said. “We push so hard to get to where we need to be, and we need to do that, but we don’t want to change who we are.
“We know we can play with anyone, and we are ready to show what we can do.”
* reprinted from http://www.lakenormanpublications.com/denver_weekly/eagles-get-into-form-for-postseason/article_a630f032-3678-11e7-a014-cbccd6b55259.html