May 27—The expectations are just a little higher for the Wardlaw Academy softball program.
Routinely play for state championships, and that starts to feel like the bare minimum. As upperclassmen leave the program, the younger players take the lessons they learned and apply them moving forward to maintain that winning tradition.
The only thing that had been eluding the Patriots was a state championship. Not anymore. A decade-long drought came to an end this month as Wardlaw swept Clarendon Hall to cap a dream season with a SCISA Class A title.
"It's good for everybody, especially the girls that played for three state championships previously and hadn't won it yet," said head coach Mark Rodgers, the Region 1-A Coach of the Year. "This year, the seniors ... sort of took the monkey off our back a little bit."
With a freshman star in the circle, strong defense and a loaded lineup — talk about a good problem for a coach to have — Wardlaw only lost twice all season.
One of those defeats was to SCHSL Class A powerhouse Dixie in the season-opening tournament at Greenwood Christian. The Patriots avenged that loss, though, by beating Dixie in the tournament finale. The other loss came to W.W. King in mid-April, and then it was only wins from there.
The Patriots overcame illnesses and injuries that could have potentially torpedoed their title hopes. Instead, players stepped up whenever asked — Rodgers had 14 on his roster, and all 14 played at some point this season.
"They were expected to excel when they went in, and they did that to keep us on the winning track," he said.
One of those who missed time was senior shortstop Gracie Kervin, the Region Co-Player of the Year. She was sidelined for the final two weeks of the regular season after having her appendix removed, and Rodgers asked her after those two weeks if she'd be able to play. She produced a doctor's note clearing her, then picked up right where she left off in the regular season.
"Just the karma of it, in the state championship game at home when we won, she led off with her first at-bat and hit a home run," Rodgers said. "... She's one you want on your team, that's for sure."
The team's statistics are staggering. Kervin batted .705 with 35 RBI and 42 stolen bases, and her four teammates to earn All-Region honors weren't far behind her.
Ashland Yonce had a .612 batting average with 32 runs scored and 36 stolen bases. Summer Williams hit .587 with a team-high five home runs and 41 RBI. Lainey Jainniney batted .415 with 26 stolen bases and 25 runs scored.
Then there's Halynn Smith, the freshman pitcher taking over in the circle after the Patriots graduated some quality arms. She won 17 games with a 2.31 ERA and 78 strikeouts, and offensively she hit .526 with 25 runs scored and 22 stolen bases.
And they weren't the only ones who put pressure on opposing pitchers.
"The bottom of our lineup, that's what separated us from Clarendon Hall and people like that," Rodgers said. "Bottom of our lineup, I think, on average, the six through nine's batting average was .361. When you can get the bottom of the lineup to produce, it gives people fits."
Don't expect the championship expectations to change any time soon at Wardlaw — Kervin is the only starter the Patriots are losing from this year's team. Practically everyone else will be back and ready to again play up to their own high standard.
Rodgers and his assistants tell their players to enjoy the grind, because it's a grind to get to where they want to be. They've bought into that mindset, and that should produce plenty of opportunities to play for more championships.