HARRISONBURG — Sitting on a plastic bucket alongside assistant coach Eddie Bowman in front of the Turner Ashby dugout, Clint Curry watched as his team took their final at-bats of the day Monday.
Following one last grounder that was picked up like any routine play, the TA softball coach stood up and barked a simple command to his team.
“Get ‘em up,” Curry yelled. “Get ‘em in.”
The third-year Knights coach may not have been referring to the morale of his team with the phrasing, but it’s the role he, along with two other local coaches, had to take on over the past few days in preparation for this week’s Virginia High School League state tournaments as they aim to lift the energy from their teams after rough outings in the regional finals.
Turner Ashby softball and Spotswood boys soccer will both look to regroup tonight when they hit the road for the VHSL Class 3 quarterfinals in their respective sports, while Page County baseball — the defending Class 2 state champion — will also look to bounce back from a 9-4 loss in the Region 2B championship game to Stuarts Draft.
The Page softball team, which is also the defending Class 2 state champion, is the only local team that will get to host a state quarterfinal game when it takes on Nottoway — the Region 2A runner-up — at 5 p.m. in Shenandoah.
The Knights will travel to Region 3D champion and defending Class 3 state runner-up Cave Spring, the Trailblazers will take on Northside at William Byrd High School and the Panthers baseball team will make the long trek to take on King William — the Region 2A champion — at 5 p.m. in King William County.
“We’ve definitely regrouped,” Turner Ashby pitcher Makayla Cyzick said. “We put it behind us. There’s nothing we can do about it now. That was last Thursday. We have to focus on the game [today]. We’ve just tried to have a really positive attitude and a positive outlook. We have to go out and get it done tomorrow.”
TA is coming off a 3-0 loss to Liberty-Bedford in the Region 3C championship game.
It was a unique loss because Cyzick pitched well, but a three-hit fourth inning from Liberty and the lack of timely hitting by the Knights ultimately doomed them.
“We’ve had a pretty good attitude since then,” Curry said. “We have moved on, put that game behind us. It was one of the craziest games I’ve ever been affiliated with in all my years. Every now and again, you’ll run into stuff like that. You’ve got to learn from it and move on, forget it, put it behind you.”
The Knights may be feeling a bit of déjà vu after blowing a six-run lead in last year’s regional championship game to the Minettes and then falling to Cave Spring in the state quarterfinal round to end their season.
In that game, TA wasn’t able to figure out Cave Spring pitcher Abby Weaver, but Curry said he’s confident they’ll be able to do so this year.
“Last year was one of our worst games we played all year,” Curry said. “We didn’t have a very good game. The defense broke down everything. We just didn’t have a good day.”
Weaver is a junior and is already verbally committed to Virginia.
On Monday at practice, Knights assistant coach Jackie Guerra — a former Radford standout — pitched against the TA batters to help prepare them for the type of pitches they’ll see today from Weaver.
“Confidence is one of our big things,” said catcher Carley Davis, who was named the Region 3C Player of the Year on Monday. “We just need to regain our confidence. Each at-bat, we need to remind ourselves that we’re the best player on the field. That’s my mindset. It’s been my mindset since freshman year. When I get up in the box, I’m like, ‘Who is this pitcher?’ That’s just the type of confidence you have to have.”
That confidence from the Knights wasn’t wavered by the loss to Liberty.
From the rowdy crowd in Bedford to a couple of odd calls throughout the game, Curry called the loss to the Minettes a “weird game” and said he has confidence that his team will respond appropriately.
“Honestly, I feel like all of us have kind of put it behind us,” Davis said. “We don’t really talk about it, talk about them. We just try to focus on ourselves and getting better rather than trying to match someone else.”
Despite their insistence to not compare themselves to their opponent, it’s undeniable how similar this year’s matchup is between Turner Ashby and Cave Spring.
Both teams were young last season and ahead of schedule in terms of their progression, but now each squad comes into today’s contest with experience on the big stage.
“They’ve been there, been through it and know what it takes to win,” Curry said of Davis and Cyzick. “They take charge of the team, getting the team motivated. They get the rest of the girls ready to play ball. They’re leaders. They know what they’re doing. There won’t be any surprises for them.”
Like the Knights, the SHS boys soccer team is also coming off a loss — a 6-2 rout at the hands of perennial state power Western Albemarle in the regional championship.
In that loss, the Warriors outscored the Trailblazers 5-0 in the first half, but Spotswood outscored them 2-1 in the second half and gained some momentum going into the state tournament.
“I definitely feel like the boys have been dialed in,” Spotswood coach Dan Atwell said. “They realize the sense of urgency needed now. Even though we didn’t find success in the [regional championship], we found out what we are made of in that second half. There’s no quit in these guys.”
While the Turner Ashby softball team has just three seniors — Davis, Cyzick and Ashton Richmond — the Trailblazers feature 11.
Those seniors have been the primary motivation for the team to get back to the state tournament for a third straight year and now serve as the reason why the team hopes to extend the season a little longer.
“That’s what we talk about every day,” Atwell said. “What are you playing for? We’re playing for our seniors. For some of these guys, this is their third appearance in the state tournament and they understand that it can go away in any moment. They are definitely playing with some more urgency, more intensity.”
In the past two state tournament appearances, Spotswood failed to win a game.
Junior midfielder Caleb Chavez, who was on each of those teams and serves as a captain now, said a different type of mentality is required on the field at this time of the season.
“You have to play with passion, have to play as a unit,” Chavez said. “You can’t be an individual in this. We have to do this together. We can’t go anywhere as a bunch of individuals. A motivated and an intense team will take us a long way because we have a good group of guys and a good work ethic. I think we’ll go far.”
Against Western, the Trailblazers struggled with the fast-paced attack of the Warriors and never got into a rhythm offensively until the second half.
Once Spotswood settled in, however, it showed the ability to play against one of the top teams in the state.
“When we play one or two touches, we are an unstoppable team,” SHS midfielder Abrey Atwell said. “Once we talk to each other, communicate and lift each other up — positivity is key for us — we just need to lift each other up often and we’ll go from there.
“We’ve been in this position already twice. To go to the next game, would mean the world to us. We worked all season and all year to get to that next step.”
Josh Amberg is one of the 11 seniors on the Spotswood roster and said losing to Western for a third straight season in the regional championship was disheartening, but there were also plenty of positives to take away from it.
“It’s definitely motivating,” he said. “We know we can play with teams at this level. It was a little bit of a wake-up call to play with more intensity. We know we have to play with a certain intensity now to play at that level.”
Heading into today’s quarterfinal contests, both teams said they are hopeful that their experience on the big stage — this is the third straight year for Spotswood boys soccer in the state tournament and the second straight for the Turner Ashby softball team — will pay off.
They also said they hope to reverse the recent trend of losing in the first round and instead, make a run at a state title.
“I think it definitely gives us that little edge that we need with the confidence of some of these guys,” Dan Atwell said. “Knowing what we’re going into — the bus ride, the team meal, the comfort level of what’s about to take place — it doesn’t give them complacency. It gives them certainty and confidence.”
Cyzick said motivation isn’t an issue at this time of year and despite last year’s result against Cave Spring, the team is simply focused on keeping their season alive.
As one of three seniors, she said she’s hopeful her teammates will help extend the careers of her, Davis and Richmond for at least one more game.
“My big thing is play with a lot of heart,” Cyzick said. “We can’t control what the other team does, what the umpires do. We control what we do as individuals and as a team. I just want us to play with a lot of heart and the rest will take care of itself.”
In order to get wins today, all four local teams will need a refocused and energized effort in all facets of the game because, as Curry said, “everybody is good now.”
As the team wrapped up its post-practice speech Monday, the TA coach told his players he wanted them to be comfortable and relaxed for the bus ride to Roanoke.
He then stuck his hand in for a quick high-five and reminded them one last time, “Everybody in. Everybody up.” If the Knights do that, he said, they’ll be just fine.
“I feel like if we play ball — I’ve seen the other teams, seen the other pitchers — if we go down there and play ball like we can, we can do it,” Curry said. “We’re going to have to play ball though.
“We can’t let the pressure get to us, go down there and get caught up in the moment and how big the situation is. We have to stay focused and calm. We have to be a good, relaxed team and take care of business. Period.”