TA Going Through Regular Season Undefeated
HARRISONBURG — Turner Ashby High School softball coach Laura Bowman said she dropped her head in the fifth inning of an April 4 game at Tazewell, figuring ace pitcher Natalie Helmick had just lost her no-hitter.
A Tazewell batter had lined a ball through the right side of the infield, but before Bowman knew what happened, right fielder Sydney Sheffer fired the throw to first base to keep the no-hitter intact. Helmick finished off the Bulldogs for the no-hitter as the Knights came away with an 11-0 slaughter-rule win in six innings.
Just one example of TA’s depth, which Bowman said stretches as deep as 13 players this season.
“They get the job done,” Bowman said Friday. “Somebody different steps up every single game; there hasn’t been one girl that we’ve leaned on.”
The Knights head into the final eight games of the regular season with a perfect 11-0 record, including eight wins by slaughter rule and a 129-11 run differential. TA has played just 66 of a possible 77 innings this season due to shortened games.
They are the most recent area team in any sport trying to go undefeated. This winter, the Spotswood boys’ basketball team started the season 28-0. Last spring, the Eastern Mennonite High School girls’ soccer team won 14 straight to start the season. In 2012-13, the East Rockingham girls’ basketball team started 23-0.
So did Bowman, a 2000 TA graduate who played for the Knights, expect this year’s team to be shooting for those same marks?
“I knew we had a lot of talent and a lot of potential,” Bowman said. “I don’t know if an undefeated season was my expectation.”
More than halfway through the season, TA is dealing with the same target that most successful teams have on them. The Knights get every team’s best shot, but so far it has not affected the outcome.
As a team, the Knights wanted to hit .400 this year after hitting .373 in 2013. So far, they’re hitting .419, with eight players batting over .400, including a .441 clip with runners in scoring position. The team’s leading hitter, junior Jordan Will, is hitting .600 (she missed a few games due to injury), and freshman Cana Davis (.486), sophomore Kierstin Roadcap (.483) and junior Alexa Sheets (.459) are also having impact seasons.
“This team has the most talent of any team I’ve coached,” Bowman said. “They are hungry to get better. They work harder in practice than any group of players I’ve had. They have played together for so long (many of TA’s players were part of the same 11 and 12 Little League all-star team that won a state title). In the beginning of the season I don’t know if they had the complete confidence in each other, and as the season has rolled on you can see them relaxed and they’re confident in others around them.”
Helmick, who is 9-0 in the circle this year after missing all but five games as a freshman in 2013 with a torn ligament in her right pitching elbow, is having a standout sophomore season. The 5-foot-10 hurler, who committed in September to play at James Madison University, has one goal: to strike out opposing hitters, a lesson she learned from her future coach at JMU, Mickey Dean.
“He said a pitcher’s role is to strike everyone out,” Helmick said. “It’s easier on the defense if you strike everyone out, and there will be less errors.”
Helmick has taken Dean’s advice to heart. She is averaging over one strikeout per inning (49 in 45 innings) and has an ERA of .778. She’s allowed just 19 hits and walked just 15 batters.
“I would say she wants to strike everybody out,” Bowman said. “We set goals, and her strikeouts were her No. 1 thing.”
Helmick, who underwent Tommy John surgery on her elbow to repair the torn ligament, kept a blog of her rehab (www.nataliesstory.com) and said the hardest part was getting used to not being on a team. Her height, which she uses to her advantage by striding farther than most pitchers, can be intimidating, she said, although she said she doesn’t try to be.
Now that she’s back in the circle – throwing 61 miles per hour-plus with a natural drop to her pitch – TA has a legitimate ace who can carry the team.
“Getting her back was a great addition,” Bowman said.
The Knights will try to reach the state tournament for the first time since 2009. They have made the regional tournament each of the past three seasons after having a 19-year streak of regional appearances snapped in 2010. It’ll be a different route this year, however, with TA first having to advance through the Conference 29 tournament.
Under legendary coach Craig Miller, whom Bowman took over for in 2008, the Knights won a Group AA title (2004), three regional championships (1998, 2004, 2008) and 13 district championships.
Playing in a program with so much winning tradition has made the team extra competitive.
“I think coming off a season last year where we always just kind of got by,” Bowman said, “the team that we thought we would slaughter rule would go to seven innings or extra innings and we weren’t really satisfied with that. The experience, the additions, they are so competitive. They eat each other alive in practice and leave the field laughing with each other.”
Being undefeated carries some weight. From here, the target will only grow.
“Everyone wants to beat that undefeated team and have that title,” Helmick said. “The target is on our back. We know that and we’re playing within ourselves.”