Eagles in pursuit of back-to-back state titles in 2020

Eastern Alamance's state championship squad relied heavily on youth this spring, including freshmen Makiya Graves (left) at first base, and Kenna Raye Dark (right) on the mound. Graves and Dark, along with a host of other returning players, gives the Eagles confidence that they'll have a shot of winning back-to-back NCHSAA 3A state titles in the spring of 2020.

As Eastern Alamance High School continues to bask in the glory of its softball team’s recent NCHSAA 3A state championship, the inevitable question lurking in the minds of Eagle fans - and high school softball observers around the state, for that matter - is whether last weekend’s thrilling victory over Central Cabarrus is just the beginning of a dynasty in Mebane. 

“This season went really well,” said EAHS pitching sensation Kenna Raye Dark, who has already committed to play college softball at the University of North Carolina. “We were undefeated in the conference. We were conference champs. That’s the first time we’ve gone undefeated (in conference play) in a really long time. The last (EAHS) team to make it this far (in the state playoffs) was 2013. It was really cool to be a part of this team as a freshman.”

Although EAHS has to replace three key components of the 2019 state title team - graduating seniors Morgan Lawson in center field and Cameryn Bass at second base, as well as senior role player Hannah Stump - everyone else is returning. The Eagles will also be adding some talent from Woodlawn and Hawfields Middle Schools, including Morgan and Madelyn Lawson’s younger sister, Molly Lawson. 

“I get to coach another Lawson,” Way said. 

Could the Eagles be poised to win multiple state titles over the next two or three years? 

Could they even string together multiple state championships in a row? 

In 2020 the Eagles will bring back seven players who started in the state championship series - senior Hailey Batista at catcher, juniors Madelyn Lawson at shortstop, Haleigh Palmer at third base, and Reagan Hartley in right field, and sophomores Kenna Raye Dark at pitcher, Makiya Graves at first base, and Kyra Jones in left field. 

Also returning are rising senior Madison Hartley, rising juniors Kearsyn Henderson, Taryn Shelton, Jayden Brown, Makayla VanDusen, Audrey Byrd, and Ella Lee, as well as rising sophomores Stoney Dixon and Mackenzie Taylor. There will also be others on Eastern’s junior varsity squad who will be seeking major improvement during the offseason, and a possible shot at cracking the loaded varsity club next winter. 

Needless to say, head coach Danny Way won’t have a problem fielding a lineup filled with talent and experience over the next few springs. But at the same time, the bar has been raised. 

After winning the championship this season, nothing less than a second straight NCHSAA 3A crown will satisfy this group come a year from now. 

“Oh yeah. We’re going to be chasing some now,” said Coach Way on the prospect of winning more titles. 

“Next year, we’re hoping to get back here, to the state championship. We’re going to work even harder. We’re going to become a better team - work as a team with a positive attitude. No negativity to hurt the team. All positive,” added Dark, EAHS’s hurling phenom who finished her freshman season with a 20-2 record, a 0.83 earned run average, 267 strikeouts and only 41 walks in 160.1 innings, and a team-high nine home runs at the plate. 

For their coach, the 2019 Eastern Alamance softball team was a lesson in cool. Not just cool in the way high school students see it - fitting in and being part of a group. 

Cool in handling pressure situations. Cool in seizing a moment. Cool in being able to conquer fears and attain greatness as a collective group. 

There were certainly moments of high drama along the way. But the beautiful thing about this group is that they found ways to avoid bringing the drama onto each other. 

When things didn’t go well, these young women channeled their anger in non-toxic directions, avoiding turning on each other. The result was a remarkably cohesive group between the lines that for the most part avoided those catastrophic mistakes that cost other teams the chance of taking what Eastern ultimately took for itself. 

“This is what I tell them,” Way said. “When you get down, or if you need to go into the restroom to scream and holler - you had a bad at-bat, or you’ve had a bad inning out there - get it out. Because we’re going to need you somewhere down the line. And that’s what happened (in the state championship finals). They blowed it out in the bathroom there, or in the dugout. That’s always been our motto. Just get it out of you, and just go on to the next play. We just blow it off, and here we go - next pitch. I just let the kids get it out, and we just go.”

“(I credit this state title to) youth. And being relaxed,” Way continued. “They play music. We have to have music everywhere we go. And just changing my ways. They made me change my ways. Change my hard ways. They’re kind of easier now.” 

While Way admits that this group helped mellow him as a coach, the players seem to agree that Way’s firm but quirky nature helps keep them motivated and energized. 

“He’s crazy. But we all love him. He says some crazy things sometimes, and we’re all like, ‘What are you talking about?’” Dark said of the EAHS coach. “And then we’ll be like, ‘Okay, we’re just going to do it.’ And then sometimes he’ll be really funny, and we’ll all be laughing in practice. It’s crazy.” 

Of course, softball and baseball aren’t the same as other team sports like basketball and football, where the more athletic and talented team typically wins - especially at the prep level. 

The best team doesn’t always prevail on the diamond. Sometimes it’s the hottest team. And the team that can make the fewest mistakes. 

Winning another state title certainly won’t come easy for the Eagles, even if most of their core is returning. There were too many close games in their title run to assume that anyone will be lying down for them, or overwhelmed by their abilities. 

The margin of error is so thin with errors, foul lines, balls and strikes, and all the other range of possibilities that could happen in a game, that it’s foolhardy to outright predict multiple state softball titles. It’s just something that doesn’t happen all that much. 

But the good news for the Eagles is that now their reputation will precede them. They’re the defending state champion. If they weren’t intimidating people already, they should be now. 

Even so, the Eagles surely won’t be taking anything for granted. 

For Coach Way, who will begin summer workouts with some of the incoming Eagles players in late June, there’s little time for breaks. He’s taking a couple weeks to enjoy his first state title as a head coach, but it won’t be long until he’ll be right back at it on the EAHS field. 

“We’re going to open our workouts June 24. We take a little break, and we bring the freshmen that are coming in - we go to the weight room,” Way said. “A lot of these girls play (summer travel ball). Whoever doesn’t play, or whoever wants to come work out, they come to work out. That’s what our program is all about - it’s out-working everybody else. We’re going to go back to work in two or three weeks. I’m going to get myself calmed down a little bit. But we’re going back to work.”