Cougars overcome adversity for state softball crown
The High Point Christian Academy softball team didn’t expect to be in such a difficult position so early.
After earning the top seed in the NCISAA 3A tournament, the Cougars reached double-elimination play with relative ease. But losing against Metrolina Christian in their first game last weekend deflated their state title hopes.
And not only were they on the verge of an early exit, but one of their top players, sophomore second baseman Nikki Zittinger, suffered a devastating knee injury that sidelined her. Things were not looking good.
“We just had a glimmer of hope,” recalls junior center fielder Sydney Harris.
As soon as the season started, coach Jeremy Cecil realized his team had the potential to be very good. The players embraced the work — the drills, the constant repetition, the fundamentals — from the outset.
After finishing second to Metrolina last year, losing in the final championship game, and Cannon School the previous year, falling in the first championship game, HPCA had been achingly close. This year, it was preparing to win.
“We were really getting after it in practice,” coach Cecil says. “No one was laughing or cutting up. I said, ‘You know what, if we continue to improve as the season goes, the sky’s the limit for what this team can do.’”
The Cougars proved themselves a top-level team in the fifth game of the season. They won 5-4 against a good team in Charlotte Christian, which returned much of its state semifinal team from last year.
That win confirmed to HPCA, which ended up ranked in the top three in the state all season, that it could compete with the elite teams. From there, it lost only two regular-season games and tied for a share of the PACIS 3A title.
“We knew we could compete with the best teams in the state,” coach Cecil says of that win. “From there on, their demeanor and how they approached things was different, more confident.”
After beating Gaston Christian, the top-seeded Cougars rolled into double-elimination play of the state tournament. As it had throughout the season, their team unity and focus in playing inning-by-inning fueled their success.
But the loss to fifth-seeded Metrolina, falling 9-5 and losing Zittinger, rattled them for just a moment. They were suddenly one loss from the end of their season. But they remained faithful they would regroup and come back strong.
Beating rival Wesleyan Christian, the No. 3 seed, Friday to advance to Saturday helped. Then, on Saturday, HPCA run-ruled Metrolina to face second-seeded Hickory Grove, which had won twice to move with one win of the title.
“In the games following the first one, our attitudes shifted a little bit,” sophomore left fielder Austen Coats says. “Our pitcher (eighth-grader Ashlyn Kennedy) really stuck in there and held it together. I think that really helped.
“Nikki, even after she got hurt, cheered us on the entire time. Every time we came in, she was like, ‘C’mon, win this inning; you got it.’ She was just keeping us up. If we made an error, it was, ‘Don’t focus on it. Focus on the next play.’”
The Cougars — who placed Lindsay Cecil, Sloane McPeak and Kennedy on the 15-player all-state team — first edged the Lions 1-0. Following the progression of the previous two years, in their minds, they were due to finally win.
They trailed by two runs in the winner-take-all finale before jumping ahead in the fifth. HPCA, which finished 21-3, held fast in the sixth, as Hickory Grove threatened, and sealed it in the seventh when Harris snagged the final out for a 5-4 win and its first state title.
“It’s really humbling,” Harris says. “We’ve worked for it for so long. We weren’t expected to win, and nobody saw it coming. We worked hard, and, with God on our side, we knew we could do anything.”