HARRISONBURG — A number of Turner Ashby High School softball players, channeling their inner 1980s Oakland A’s, wear white cleats, including Natalie Helmick. The Knights’ ace pitcher has a pair of Mizunos, well-loved by infield dirt and so many innings, she got last Christmas.
The white’s been muted to a sandy, desert beige, but the shoes still stand out, especially against the all-black TA uniform. The spikes are as functional and as they are trendy.
“White’s coming back in style,” Helmick said. “And you got to be stylish.”
The undefeated Knights were that and more Saturday afternoon at Harrisonburg High School, coming through with situational hitting and paced by another shutdown performance in the circle by Helmick to beat Fort Defiance 4-1 and win the inaugural Conference 29 softball championship.
“It’s just awesome because it’s the first year they’ve done conferences,” said TA center fielder Cana Davis, who had two RBIs Saturday. “So it’s cool to be like, ‘We were the first conference winners.’”
The Knights, who will host Lord Botetourt in the first round of the 3A West regional tournament Monday at 5:30 p.m., improved to 22-0.
The last time TA was undefeated this late in the season was 2008 when, in longtime coach Craig Miller’s last season, it was 23-0 after winning the Region III championship. The Knights lost their next game, falling to Salem in the state quarterfinal. Turner Ashby last won a state title in 2004.
Saturday was TA’s first district/conference tournament title since 2009, and coach Laura Bowman — a former TA catcher who took over the program from Miller in ’09 — attributed the Knights’ roll to a balanced roster.
“It could be somebody hot one game, and if they’re not hot that game, somebody is going to pick them up,” Bowman said. “And it doesn’t matter who it is. Today, it was some freshmen; it could be a senior. It’s been somebody different every single time.”
Davis, a freshman, gave the Knights a 1-0 lead in the top of the third inning with a bloop double. She hit it to shallow left field, and Fort’s Christin Rankin came in and dove but couldn’t hold on. Davis then put TA ahead 3-1 in a three-run fifth inning (TA made it 2-1 on an error earlier in that inning) with a sacrifice fly to center field that scored fellow freshman Katrina Martin.
Martin has been starting at shortstop in place of Alexa Sheets (she has a concussion, but Bowman expects her to return Monday), and Saturday, Martin played solid defense while going 2-for-3 with two singles and two runs.
“She’s a complete utility player,” Bowman said of Martin. “She’s filled in at third a little when Jordon [Will] hurt her shoulder. She’s played second base when Olivia [Cook] hurt her knee. Before that, she’d been rotating in right field. But I asked her when Olivia got hurt, ‘Is there any position you haven’t played this year that you’d like to try out?’ ’cause anywhere you put her, she’s going to give 110 percent and definitely get the job done.”
Fort, which is 19-3 (all three losses are to TA), made it 1-1 in the fourth inning on a single by Cassidey Chrisman, who went 2-for-3. But the Knights came back in the fifth, manufacturing runs on the Fort error, Davis’ sac fly and a single by Cook, a right-hander who took a high outside pitch the other way into right field.
“Anything that we can do get a better across the plate, pretty much,” Davis said.
Helmick (20-0) gave up four hits in a complete game. The sophomore right-hander struck out four and walked one while out-dueling Fort ace and fellow James Madison recruit Megan Good.
“Today, I didn’t feel like I had my best but I had to rely on my movement, and having a defense like that, it really took the pressure off me,” Helmick said. “It really helped me a lot, and to have the bats that we had. This was all them. They deserved it. They got this.”
Good struck out 14 in the Indians’ semifinal win over Broadway on Friday night. On Saturday, the senior right-hander struck out eight and gave up three earned runs and six hits in another complete-game performance.
Despite the loss, Fort Defiance still advances to the regional tournament.
“It kind of sucks, but you know, we’re all happy,” said Fort catcher Carli Hill, who will join her sister Payton and play at Division III York College in Pennsylvania next season. “We’re like, ‘Hey, we made it this far. We didn’t think we’d make it this far this year.’ I mean, they can have it, but we’re still going to regionals just with them.”
Fort Defiance 000 100 0 – 1 4 1
Turner Ashby 001 030 x – 4 6 0
Good and Hill; Helmick and Bosley. W – Helmick (20-0). L – Good (13-3).