The story lines are abundant on the Ledger-Enquirer’s 2018 All-Bi-City Fall Softball Team.
Despite being from one of the smallest schools in the area, the Player of the Year is Marion County senior catcher/utility player Ashley Whitley.
The Hitter of the Year is Northside junior third baseman/pitcher Raelee Weaver, who was the Pitcher of the Year last season.
The Pitcher of the Year is Harris County senior Lindsey Kyte, improving from last season’s second-team selection.
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And the Co-Coaches of the Year, John Dimitri of Marion County and Brandon Jenkins of Northside, were childhood friends and are sons of successful former coaches.
Whitley was surprised the Columbus area coaches voted her as Player of the Year.
“I didn’t expect someone from a single-A school to get it,” she said. “I feel honored they would put me up there.”
In 31 games this season, Whitley hit .553 with 25 RBI, 46 runs, 15 doubles, two triples, six home runs, 16 walks, six strikeouts and 28 stolen bases.
While catching 133 2/3 innings, she threw out 43.5 percent of the runners attempting to steal (10 of 23). To put that statistic in perspective, St. Louis Cardinals catcher Yadier Molina is Major League Baseball’s active career leader in caught stealing percentage with 40.7.
So her stats speak for themselves, as Dimitri said. Then he couldn’t resist gushing about her.
“Ashley does everything on the field and off the field in the way you want a player and a person to be,” he said. “She works really hard. She tries to help everyone. She’s recognizable in the community doing things. She’s got all the upside in the world.”
Whitley played mostly catcher, but she also played shortstop and even pitched for the first time since her freshman year. She compiled a 3.11 ERA in nine innings over three games while her twin sister, Ansley, was sidelined.
Ansley, a first-team All-Bi-City infielder, joined Ashley as Virginia Tech signees. Both are all-state selections by the Georgia Athletic Coaches Association.
Players often like to focus on developing their skill at one position. Whitley, however, likes the challenge of excelling at multiple positions.
“Ever since I was little, my parents played me everywhere,” she said. “Once I got older, I was used to it.”
For the second straight year, Marion County was among the eight teams that reached the Class A public-school state tournament. The Eagles went 1-2 in the double-elimination format after going 0-2 in 2017.
“We all pulled together and our team bonded a lot better this year,” Whitley said. “We decided to all work harder.”
After earning the 2017 Pitcher of the Year honor, Weaver didn’t perform as well on the mound this year, but she still was a productive force for Northside.
“Through the season, I struggled with my pitching,” said Weaver, a GACA all-state selection who committed to Mercer University with the goal of becoming a neurosurgeon. “I knew that if I wanted to help my team, I needed to excel in a different way, and the hard work paid off.”
In 39 games, she batted .456 with a .495 on-base percentage, 41 hits, 11 doubles, four home runs, 31 RBI and 24 runs.
“In practice, I spent more time focusing on my hitting and talking with my coach,” Weaver said.
Jenkins noted Weaver was hindered by an injured pitching arm, which didn’t heal until the state playoffs, but she still had a 2.43 ERA with 40 strikeouts in 54 innings pitched.
“She’s a great softball player, but she’s also a great person,” Jenkins said. “She gives you 100 percent on and off the field. She’s always happy. She’s the one everyone looks up to. She puts a smile on everyone’s face when she walks through the school.”
Weaver came through in the clutch during the Class AAAA state championship game against Heritage. Although the Patriots lost 5-4, she hit two home runs in that game, including a two-run shot that broke a 2-2 tie in the sixth inning.
With four other Patriots joining Weaver as returning starters next season, she is confident they can contend for a state title to match the one they won in 2017.
“Everyone expected us to win every game this year,” Weaver said. “All the pressure was on us. But I’m still so proud of how far we came. Next year, we won’t be defending state championships anymore; we’ll be pursing another one.”
The conditions were miserable, but Kyte still has a joyful memory of the first-round Class AAAAA state playoff doubleheader against Jones County.
After winning the first game with Kyte on the mound, Harris County trailed in Game 2 when it started raining. In a downpour, the Tigers rallied for the sweep as Kyte relieved their struggling pitcher when she told coach Brook Zuerner she was fit enough to do the job despite pitching the entire opener.
“It was just remarkable to see her come in there and just completely shut them down,” Zuerner said.
The performance didn’t surprise the coach.
“Lindsey is unbelievably composed,” Zuerner said. “But that wasn’t something that came natural. When she started with us in eighth grade, she showed a lot of emotion on the field and frustration. This year, she was so composed and dedicated to the team. . . . She also owns up when she doesn’t get it done. She shows that ‘Hey, it’s OK to make mistakes as long as you move forward.’ She’s such a hard worker on the field.”
Kyte said, “I do think I became a leader on our team. My teammates depended on me more and more as the season got harder. . . . I just love hanging out with them. They’ve always been there for me, and they always will be there for me.”
This season, Kyte compiled a 12-4 record with one save, a 1.49 ERA in 89 innings pitched during 21 games. She struck out 70, walked 35 and held opponents to a batting average of .192.
Zuerner called Kyte one of the top pitchers she has coached in 14 years.
“She throws hard for a lefty but has just enough unpredictability to make her that much better,” Zuerner said.
Kyte has signed with Kennesaw State. She isn’t certain about her major yet, but she is leaning toward information technology.
Dimitri coached Jordan’s softball team until this year, when he replaced Marion County coach David Wells, who is battling cancer.
The Eagles smoothed out what could have been a rocky transition and continued their winning ways. After going 20-5 overall and 0-2 in the state tournament last year, they went 21-10 overall and 1-2 in the state tournament this year, achieving back-to-back region championships and Elite Eight appearances.
“I give credit to the kids for buying into the philosophy our coaching staff has,” Dimitri said.
That philosophy, he said, is defined as “just trying to build team character. It’s not all about one person. It’s about the next person up. It’s more about the team. . . . To see the players grow and do things together and believe in one another, I’m just proud of them.”
Coaching is the family business. Dimitri’s late father, Anthony, coached baseball at Hardaway and Jordan, where Dimitri’s twin brother, Tony, is the baseball coach.
Making the Co-Coach of the Year honor more gratifying, Dimitri said, is sharing it with Jenkins, whose late father, Murphy, coached basketball at Kendrick and Columbus.
“To get honored with Brandon is just great,” Dimitri said. “Our dads would be proud to know we’re doing something we love, and we’re fortunate enough they brought us up and gave us the guidance to follow in their footsteps.”
This is the third straight year Jenkins has received at least a share of the Coach of the Year honor. In 2016, he led the Patriots to a 29-5 record and a runner-up finish in the Class AAAA state tournament. In 2017, they went 34-3 and captured the first state championship in the program’s history.
Then this season, with the pressure of being the defending state champs, the Patriots ground through injuries and a tough schedule as they went 28-11 overall and 8-0 in the region, winning their fourth straight region championship.
They also showed their grit in the double-elimination state tournament. They battled back from an opening loss by winning four straight games in the losers bracket to reach the championship game, where they were edged by Heritage 5-4.
“The girls really stepped up, overcoming adversity and living up to a lot of expectations from us, from themselves and from the outside world,” Jenkins said. “But the girls responded well. Not one time did I think it crossed their mind that we wouldn’t get back to the state championships game. Everybody picked each other up and came together as a team.”
Jenkins echoed Dimitri as he remarked about being Co-Coaches of the Year.
“We grew up together and played on the same Babe Ruth team,” Jenkins said. “Now, our kids play together.”
LEDGER-ENQUIRER 2018 ALL-BI-CITY FALL SOFTBALL TEAM
Thanks to Muscogee County School District athletics director Jeff Battles for coordinating the selection process. Coaches at each high school in the Columbus area were invited to make nominations, meet to discuss the nominations and vote on the selections.
Top individual honors
Player of the Year: Marion County senior infielder/pitcher Ashley Whitley.
Hitter of the Year: Northside junior infielder/pitcher Raelee Weaver.
Pitcher of the Year: Harris County senior pitcher/first baseman Lindsey Kyte.
Co-Coaches of the Year: John Dimitri of Marion County and Brandon Jenkins of Northside.
Pitchers: Marion County junior Britney Foster and Northside junior Ireland Cavanaugh.
Infielders: Northside junior Mary Beth Cahalan, Iyana “Bean” Taylor of Hardaway, Marion County senior Ansley Whitley, Gracie Massengale of Shaw and Harris County junior Zoe Willis.
Outfielders: Nylah Snead of Shaw, Columbus sophomore Alexis Day, Marion County junior Lillie McCorkle, Northside senior Kennedi Bedell, Columbus senior Avery Hooper and Hardaway junior Lilly Mitchell.
Brookstone: Haley Johnson and Gracie Vazquez; Carver: Jai Morris; Columbus: Carlie Neal; Hardaway: Seanise Mahone; Harris County: Olivia Lott; Jordan: Shaneisia Landon; Marion County: Madison Murray; Northside: Jada Chadwick, Sammie Cotton and Karlee Fuller; Shaw: Gabby Falcon and Hannah Kennard.
Mark Rice, 706-576-6272, @MarkRiceLE.