When asked how the 2019 version of the Montreat softball team looks so far, seventh-year head coach Heather Maston didn’t lack for descriptors.
“They’re putting the ball in play, they’re hitting the ball hard, and they’re scrappy,” said Maston. “This year I’m seeing that they’re scrappier than they’ve been in the past. They’re fighting. They’re pushing to take a lead back if they lose a lead. If they give somebody a run, they say ‘Okay, let’s go get four.’”
The result was an even 9-9 record through 18 games this season against notably high-caliber competition.
It’s also come with 16 of those games on the road and two “home” games played at Marion’s Big League Camp due to field conditions at Roxy Hines Field at Montreat’s Black Mountain campus.
The Cavs roster features players from across the country, as well as a healthy concentration of players from near at hand.
Juniors Aly Woody, Liana Elliott, and Mikki Shelton are all starters and attended nearby McDowell High School. Outfielder Bree Powell is from Belmont, North Carolina near Charlotte, and pitcher Josie Harris is from Asheville’s A.C. Reynolds High School.
“Liana is probably one of the surprises this year,” said Maston. “She is playing some first base and outfield this year and she’s hitting the ball really well.”
Elliott had 15 RBIs to lead the squad through March 7. The junior had a spectacular, Willie Mays-esque catch in the outfield in the Appalachian Athletic Conference tournament last spring that helped preserve a win and make the Cavs one of the tournament’s surprises. That momentum has carried into this spring.
Augmenting the local talent are standouts Cailin Warner and Kelsey Nolasco. Nolasco, the team’s most versatile player, hails from Casa Grande, Arizona and Warner, the Cavs’ top pitcher, is from Portland, Oregon. Maston recruited both at a Fastpitch Triple Crown showcase in Las Vegas that she attends each fall.
“What we find is that a lot of kids out west want to come east; they want to see the other side of the country,” said Maston, in describing the appeal of the college and region to potential recruits. “It’s a beautiful area, and our programs at Montreat are strong. Kelsey is majoring in elementary education, and Cailin in environmental studies. Those are two big majors, along with business, that are really appealing to those kids.”
The coach can also promise the potential recruits that they will play a challenging schedule each spring. The result is often an underwhelming record, but a strong team.
Last year, the team went 18-32, but played a host of NCAA DII teams that prepared them for a solid showing in the AAC Tournament.
After two wins, they exited the tourney on a narrow 2-1 loss to a Truett McConnell (Ga.) team that captured the conference championship, posted a 43-17 record on the season, and went on to win three games in the opening round of the NAIA Softball National Championships before exiting the field.
Another factor in the team’s favor is they often develop late in the season due to the typically cold weather that marks late winter-early spring in the Swannanoa Valley.
This year, they’ll gain an added tailwind from the return to health of Abby Swilley and Ronnie Ellis, two impact players that have been hamstrung by injuries early this season. Beginning last Friday, the Cavs also began a homestand of 15 games that will extend out through March 26.
“We do go south early because we’re trying to chase warm weather. But it’s also competition; they’re tough teams,” said Maston in describing the start to the Cavs’ 2019 season against southern opponents. “We were on the field a total of two hours before we played our first game this year. When we got back in January, I think we were out one day for an hour and it got so cold, I said ‘we’re done.’
“And then we were able to get out one other time for about an hour until the sun went down and it was too miserable. Our practices are our games in February. And the girls are working hard, and I’ve seen a huge improvement from that first year from when we started scheduling these teams to this year.”