Softball championship preview: storylines, predictions, and what to watch for

Softball championship preview: storylines, predictions, and what to watch for

Welcome to the final 2023-24 state championship previews for HighSchoolOT Insiders.

From Beaufort to Cleveland County, and Wilkes down to Brunswick, here is everything you need to know before your weekend trip to Durham or Greensboro.

1A State Championship: Northside vs. East Wilkes

Say what you want about the NCHSAA’s RPI formula, but they nailed it by giving the Cardinals a Top-2 seed in the 1A West. Two of the team’s three losses came by a combined three runs against some of the top 4A programs in the state this season, Alexander Central and West Forsyth. Not to mention, they handed both D.H. Conley and Davie County losses this season.

Chloe Andrews has been incredible in the circle. East Wilkes has spun 14 shutouts this season with the junior Catawba commit saving some of her best pitching for last. In round three against North Stokes, she twirled a one-hit shutout with 17 strikeouts. In total, she has punched out 45 batters in five playoff appearances.

It helps when you have a Division-I bound catcher behind the plate that you can also stick right into the middle of the lineup. The Cardinals have that in the form of Rutgers recruit Jayden Hutchinson who alongside Andrews, Abby Hatley, and Kali Cook form a potent top of the lineup.

Both Hatley (Lees-McRae) and Cook (Emory and Henry) are also college-bound players.

Admittedly, I had defending state runner-up North Duplin as my favorite to win the eastern region this year. 13-seed seed Northside was having none of that.

After a first-round win over North Moore, the Panthers became road warriors the rest of the way with wins over #4 Pamlico County, #5 Perquimans, #1 North Duplin, and #11 Roxboro Community.

Red-hot hitting has fueled the Cinderella run. Northside has pounded out 58 runs in six playoff games including both 9-7 and 15-5 victories in a regional final sweep.

The Panthers sport a senior-heavy lineup, and the experience packs a punch. Taylor Willard enters the state championship batting .520 out of the lead-off spot while Isabella Boykin, Jorden Clark, and Jaden Clark have combined to drive in 76 runs this season.

Boykin, Jaden Clark, and junior Londyn Keech have carried most of the load in the circle this season. All three have over 30 innings under their belt with more than 40 strikeouts recorded. We will dive deeper into it when we get to other classifications, but pitching depth is one of the most valuable weapons that a team can possess this weekend and Northside has that.

East Wilkes won the state championship because: The top of its order was too much to handle each time the lineup flipped over. The depth at the bottom of the Cardinals lineup helped set the table for some key hits, and Andrews managed to navigate her way through the Northside order while the defense behind her made some big plays.

Northside won the state championship because: The Panthers played their way from good to great over the last month of the season. There were too many tough outs atop the order, and the different looks that their pitching staff was able to give East Wilkes was enough to handle the big bats in its order. Both wins could be high-scoring affairs.

Prediction: East Wilkes has proven itself against all competition that has come its way this season. It’s been able to put up runs against some of the state’s top 4A arms and has silenced 1A bats from start to finish. If Northside’s bats can steal game one, that would be key. Anything can happen on Saturday. By the slightest of margins, East Wilkes in three.

2A State Championship: Midway vs. Southwestern Randolph

This is one of the more intriguing series of the weekend.

With a different cast of characters, Midway ran back a near-identical script from last season to earn a second straight regional title. Southwestern Randolph built off the momentum of a strong 2023 season and used a tough conference slate to round into its best form when the calendar flipped to May.

The pitching duel will be a treat. Jordyn Christopher, Kyleigh Stonerock, and Sarah Autry vs. Macie Crutchfield should yield some low-scoring matchups in Greensboro.

All four right-handers mix their pitches well and can reach back for some of their best stuff when they need it the most. Autry, who has gotten the ball in some the Raiders’ most high-leverage situations, has velocity that is a tick above Crutchfield who possesses some nasty off-speed pitches.

As a team, Midway’s three-headed monster has struck out 178 hitters in 142.2 IP all while posting a team ERA of 0.49. Crutchfield alone has nearly matched those numbers with a 0.73 ERA and 164 K’s in 124.2 innings.

Midway’s calling card has been its offense. When facing a talented arm in Martin County’s Peyton Lane, the Raiders dropped 18 runs in two regional final games.

Seven different players have over 20 hits this season, and Stonerock, who is only a freshman, has been a massive addition to the middle of the order. Her team-leading six home runs are a byproduct of Tamia Gwynn and Kiley Ives combining for 67 hits and 22 walks out of the first two spots in the lineup.

Southwestern Randolph fought back to manufacture enough runs in a three-game series win over North Stanly in the regional final. The Cougars won an epic extra innings affair in game two, and a low-scoring pitcher’s duel in game three to advance to their first state championship since 2010.

Despite having a team batting average that is 50 points lower than Midway, Southwestern boasts six batters with over 20 hits to their name. As they have been for the past few seasons, the Cougars are one of the state’s best when it comes to playing small ball.

The team is on the doorstep of 100 steals for a second straight season. Madelyn Smith is the heart and soul of the offense with a team-best .406 average, 29 steals, and 22 runs scored.

Southwestern Randolph wins the state championship because: Crutchfield continues her mastery in the circle, and the Cougars play a pair of clean games behind her. Offensively, they are able to put pressure on the Raider defense and it leads to enough runs to secure two more low-scoring victories.

Midway wins the state championship because: Southwestern Randolph is never able to get comfortable and into a rhythm against Christopher, Stonerock and Autry. The pitching staff is able to escape with a low-scoring victory in one game while the offense catches up for a big inning or two in the other. The runs won’t be there as much as they have in previous rounds, but seeing Crutchfield enough over three games gets the Raiders into just enough of a groove.

Prediction: It’s so difficult to go against a team that has put together a postseason resume like Southwestern Randolph has, but history shows that the experience that state runner-ups gain in their return trip is incredibly valuable. Midway has enough offense to escape and raise a banner in a 2-1 series win.

3A State Championship: South Brunswick vs. Kings Mountain

For dramatic effect, we have been saving predictions for the end but I will get this one out of the way. I think this will be a three-game series.

The two sides have strengths and weaknesses that contrast each other very well. This is going to be a very evenly matched-series.

Let’s start by diving into the pitching matchup. It’s going to be a whole lot of Madeline Huffman and Kina Davis. One has a 0.51 ERA while the other sports an 0.52 ERA, and both love to rack up strikeouts.

Neither put up gaudy K numbers in their respective regional final close-out games and secured victories thanks to the strong defense behind them. When both are missing bats, expect tons of zeroes on the board.

Davis, a hard-throwing Charlotte recruit, enters the state championship series with 301 strikeouts to her name. In 43 fewer innings, Huffman, who is only a sophomore, has punched out 233. Given their velocity, both have done a really good job of keeping the ball in the ballpark this season.

Kings Mountain has had no issue facing big arms this postseason. In its last four playoff wins, the Mountaineers have won by a combined five runs. Huffman has only allowed five runs in seven postseason games.

Huffman, Kali Weaver, and Kayla McSwain anchor down the top of the order. McSwain has been an RBI machine with a .484 average and 27 driven-in. If you’re able to escape the trio, catcher Paige Fleming looms with a team-best 7 homers and 30 runs batted in.

It’s a similar story with South Brunswick. Savana Burgess continues to find ways to get on base for Davis who is leading the team with a .419 average, 9 home runs, and 39 batted in. Burgess leads the Cougars with 31 runs scored and has swiped 10 bags.

Kings Mountain wins the state championship because: The top of the order can muster 2-3 big innings throughout the weekend that are enough to back Huffman in the circle. Davis is 1-2 in games where she allows more than a run, and this will be one of the better offenses that she sees. South Brunswick’s bats have gone through slumps at times this season, and the Mountaineers have enough to make that part of their game rear its head. If Kings Mountain wins, it will look very similar to last year’s 3A final where East Lincoln’s offense settled in on day two against Western Alamance fireballer Taylor Apple, and it ended up being enough.

South Brunswick wins the state championship because: Kina Davis is the best player on the field. She has the two-way ability to carry a team through a series. Her fastball is too much for Kings Mountain’s big bats to consistently catch up to, and at the plate, her teammates get some good pitches to hit because the Mountaineers are hoping to pitch around her. Someone like Carly Clewis or Tabatha Martin is going to have a huge hit that alters the outcome of the series.

Prediction: South Brunswick claims game one and Kings Mountain fights back on Saturday to force a third game. Momentum is on the Mountaineers’ side from the afternoon victory, and it’s *just* enough to win a thrilling third game by a run and claim the series 2-1.

4A State Championship: Garner vs. Weddington

This is going to be the best series of the weekend in my opinion. A true test of what wins championships: pitching and defense, or hitting.

From start to finish, Garner has consistently been the top team in the 4A East. In a wild postseason full of shocking outcomes, the Trojans still stand.

That is thanks in part to an experienced lineup that has packed a punch. Seven different girls have helped the team blast 22 home runs this season. As an offense, Garner has scored 234 runs entering this weekend’s championship series.

Virginia Tech recruit Gaby Mizelle anchors the top of the lineup. She’s batting .479 with 35 runs scored, and 21 stolen bases. 20 of her 46 hits have gone for extra bases, all of those numbers lead the team.

Lily Keefer and Brittany Stephens have done a good job batting behind her with a combined 10 HR and 61 RBI.

Raleigh Stewart, who is tied with Mizelle for the team lead in runs with 35, has stepped up big for the Trojans over the past month as a second option in the circle. In 12.1 innings pitched over three regional final games, Stewart struck out 28 batters.

Gabby Czuczuk has carried the load this season with a 1.40 ERA in 134.2 IP. Her mix of pitches from the left side paired with Stewart’s change of pace from the right side has been a formula for success.

If Garner wins this series, the ability to utilize both arms throughout the weekend will be a huge reason why.

Following a regional final sweep of Northwest Guilford, Weddington has no problem making the trip back to Greensboro this weekend.

Who would when you have an arm like Joella Thomas? The sophomore has helped take the program from 13-13 a year ago to two wins away from a state title.

In 40 innings pitched this postseason, Thomas has struck out 79 batters. She has thrown four shutouts and allowed only four runs to score.

The Warriors’ magical run has proven that they can win in several different ways. Madelyn Miller has been fantastic in close games with a huge two-run homer against Alexander Central, and the game’s lone run batted in against Northwest Guilford in game one of the regional finals.

Early offense will be something to watch for as Weddington has been able to leave Thomas with a lead after the first inning in four of its six playoff games this season.

Weddington wins the state championship because: Last week’s 4A East regional final was the blueprint. The Warriors are a more polished version of the Wake Forest team that pushed Garner to its limit last week. Weddington has elite pitching and enough offense to get what they need early on in the game. They’ve been able to dethrone Kristyn Embler, Laney Wike, and Bel Varadi so far, and for the Trojans, Thomas’ arm is too much to handle over a three-game series.

Garner wins the state championship because: Experience matters and from top to bottom they prove that they are the more complete team. They will have to grind out a pair of low-scoring wins, but it is what they have been used to doing over the past few weeks against some really good pitching. The duo of Czuczuk and Stewart proves to be valuable when having to play 21 innings in 24 hours. Apex won Wake County’s first-ever softball state championship a year ago thanks to its pitching depth and the big bat of its Division-I bound shortstop, if that script plays out again, I would not be shocked.

Prediction: What do they say during election season? It’s too close to call? I so desperately want to say that because Weddington has been so excellent this postseason. While the dominant playoff results have not always been there, Garner’s full body of work has been impressive and its talent will be enough by the slimest of margins to escape in three games.

As my colleague J. Mike Blake has said before, “People love to tell you when you’re wrong, so there’s nothing against telling them when you’re right”. I faced some criticism in February when I put Garner Top-10 in our statewide preseason poll and look at them now.

I might as well stick with them for two more days, but if Weddington hoists the banner on Saturday it is extremely merited, and all are welcome to tell me that I was wrong.

HighSchoolOT will have coverage from both Greensboro and Durham this weekend. I will be at both games at Duke on Friday, and however many it takes to crown two champions on Saturday at UNC Greensboro.

Compliment, critique, or just say hi. It’s been a fun year of high school sports in North Carolina and there are no better series to wrap it up than these four.