Prep softball: St. Albans star adjusts to leadership role
Ali Haynes says that when she became a state champion as a freshman outfielder with St. Albans in 2010, she envisioned a prep career full of banners and rings.
It hasn't worked out that way. The Red Dragons have remained a top-ranked team in the last two seasons, but were ousted at the regional semifinal level of postseason play in 2011 and 2012.
With her personal high school window closing, Haynes takes the field today with her teammates and others across the state, as preseason softball practice officially begins. Now firmly entrenched in a leadership role with the Red Dragons, the three-time All-Kanawha Valley selection brings with her a somewhat newfound sense of her own limitations.
"We came back my sophomore year and we didn't have as dominant of a pitcher," Haynes said of the follow-up year to SA's title run.
That pitcher she referred to was none other than herself. Current Youngstown State junior third baseman Samantha Snodgrass, a right-handed power pitcher at the prep level, transferred from South Charleston to attend SA and led the Dragons to their only state title.
"I know," she said unblinkingly when her self-deprecation was brought to her attention. "But it's true. We couldn't win games the same way we won when I was a freshman. We had to become a different kind of team and learn how to win different ways."
Through the adjustments of moving Haynes to the pitching circle and All-State outfielder Rachel Hickman in to take command of the infield at shortstop, veteran Coach Greg Garber acted on the premise of putting his best players in the most important positions and it worked, to an great extent.
It just didn't produce championships, or even return trips to the State Tournament. In hyper-competitive Region 4, Lincoln County emerged in 2011 and won the state title. Parkersburg South - now in Region 1 - beat the Dragons in the semis then advanced to the State Tournament a year ago, when John Marshall claimed the big-school championship.
"Now, it's time for me to be a leader," said Haynes, who scored the only run in the St. Albans' 1-0 win over Logan in the 2010 Class AAA state championship game.
"Mariah and I have to be able to do that, and to provide leadership for the younger girls. We've got Madi (Marshall) back too, and Haili McCown, but we have a lot of girls that are going to be playing new positions and a lot of younger girls on the team this year."
Hayes finished 22-6 in 2012 with ERA of 1.18 in the regular season. She hit .368 with three home runs and a team-leading 35 RBI.
Marshall, a junior, is expected to move from third base to shortstop after hitting better than .513 as a sophomore. Caudill, who hit .342 with four homers and 30 RBI, has been Haynes' battery mate at catcher for as long as the pair have played organized softball.
There are sharks circling St. Albans and appear ready to take away its status as the predominant softball power in the Kanawha Valley. Hurricane won its first Mountain State Athletic Conference championship last year by beating an injured Haynes on a rainy night at Cabell Midland. Just to the east of the Dragons, South Charleston returns Elon commitment and 2012 Kanawha Valley Player of the Year Alli Burdette to the fold, as well as a host of returning starters.
Burdette was 12-8 for SC but struck out 256 in 126 innings, finished with a 0.78 ERA and hit .397 with four homers and 20 RBI.
Haynes became more hittable has the 2012 season wore on as she battled arm troubles. She said she is in better condition as a senior.
"A lot of times something like that just comes with playing the game. Your body gets banged up and sometimes it's hard to recover," she said. "I feel great now. I'm ready to go."
As for the competition, Haynes, who has signed to play at West Virginia State in 2014, sees as level of a playing field as there has been during her career.
"I don't see any one team as the power this year," Haynes said. "Hurricane's young, but they're really good and I know South Charleston has Alli, and she's got her Division 1 scholarship and they should be good. I think it's going to be one of those years where there's a lot of good teams around, which is good for the sport."
The talent surge is hardly limited to Class AAA. Buffalo is looking for its third consecutive Class A state title, and has many of the components back that helped the Bison down Moorefield for the state title a year ago, including junior Chelsey Parkins and sophomore Ali Burdette. Herbert Hoover returns 2012 KV Rookie of the Year Alison Rager to the pitcher's circle, and could contend to unseat defending Class AA state champion Wayne in Region 4. Sissonville is another potential contender, as pitcher-first baseman Bekah Baldwin enters her senior year looking for her first State Tournament appearance.
Regular season games begin March 13.
Contact Preps Editor Derek Taylor at email@example.com or 304-348-5170. Follow him on Twitter @ItsreallyDT.