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HOUSTON – Bringing home the hardware from the softball diamond at year’s end is something that Houston-area teams have been very good at.
Last year, it was Deer Park, Barbers Hill, and Liberty to bring home the crowns in Class 6A, 5A and 4A, respectively. It was the second-straight season (not counting the cancelled 2020 year due to COVID-19) that the Houston-area brought home three titles.
In fact, in the past three seasons, it has been eight state titles and 10 since 2015.
So, which team could bring it home in 2022?
Time to break down 5 Big Things to watch as the 2022 softball playoffs begin Wednesday.
The Back-To-Back Tour
You must start with the champs. Right? All the talk to open the 2022 playoffs will surround the teams that are trying to defend their titles from a year ago.
Deer Park, which won its third crown in program history a year ago, has gone 30-2 overall this season and is ranked No. 2 in Texas by MaxPreps. The Deer rolled through District 22-6A play, outscoring opponents 147-9. They open the playoffs against North Shore.
Barbers Hill was a team that had some question marks around not if they could hit and score runs in 2022 but who would hold down the circle for the talent that had graduated in Sophia Simpson and Samantha Landry. In step freshman Hailey Nutter, who quickly turned into the ace of the team. A perfect record in district, including a sweep of rival Crosby. The Eagles open their title defense this week with a best-of-three against Manvel.
Liberty is the final piece to this puzzle. The Panthers have won two state titles in the past five seasons and looks to add number three in 2022. Liberty just capped off a 25-4 regular season, going 10-2 in district play.
Coming into the season we knew on paper that Lake Creek with its plethora of college signees and commits was going to be a statistical machine. The Lions entered this week with a perfect 29-0 mark and outscoring foes 249-28 this season.
Let’s start with Florida-commit Ava Brown in the circle. The junior’s numbers have been just flat-out silly in 2022. Brown boasts a 19-0 record with a 0.37 ERA, giving up just six earned runs with 251 strikeouts and 17 walks in 113 2/3 innings. Opponents are batting 0.072 against her.
At the plate, LSU-commit Maddie McKee leads the team with a .582 average, 11 doubles, six triples, seven home runs and 43 RBIs. Syracuse-signee Madelyn Lopez hit .507 with a team-leading 12 doubles and 30 RBIs, while Brown hit .378 with eight doubles, eight home runs and 29 RBIs.
This team is loaded and after making the Region III-5A Championship a year ago has its eyes set on Austin.
According to MaxPreps, the Lions are ranked No. 2 in the nation behind Roncalli from Indiana and No. 1 in Texas, ahead of Deer Park.
Putting a Charge into It
Clear Springs was one series win away from heading to Austin a year ago.
The Chargers fell to eventual Class 6A Champion Deer Park 3-1 in the Class 6A Region Championship in a decisive Game 3.
In 2022, Clear Springs has gone 24-4 overall, went 11-1 in district play and nearly scored 200 runs in the regular season. Junior Anna Soles leads the team at the dish with a .421 average, eight doubles and 28 RBIs, Erianna Garcia is right behind her with a .329 average and 26 RBIs and Clair Pollack is hitting .345 with 24 RBIs. Emma King leads the team in stolen bases with 19.
LSU-signee Emma Strood has hit .384 for the Chargers with six doubles and a team-leading five home runs and 22 RBIs in 2022.
Strood has also been the Chargers’ ace in the circle. The senior boasts a 17-3 record in 21 appearances with a 0.91 ERA for the season. Strood has struck out 215 batters and walked just 20 in 107 2/3 innings.
The Chargers have the hitting and pitching to make a run back to the Regional Championship and beyond in the coming weeks.
The Stat Machines!!
It is always fun to peruse the stats and see who has balled out in 2022. These are the leaders in each category, according to MaxPreps.
Home Runs – Kasidi Pickering, Atascocita (13), Kelsie Kelso, Atascocita (12), Addyson Sheppard, Kingwood (12) RBIs – Halee Vance, Cypress Woods (53), Kelsie Kelso, Atascocita (48), Kasidi Pickering, Atascocita (47), Karlie Barba, Dobie (46), Maddie McKee, Lake Creek (43), Ahlana Bruins, New Caney (43), Mayson Garret, Angleton (43), Kristyn Whitlock, Pearland (42), Molly Yoo, Cypress Ranch (41), Addyson Sheppard, Kingwood (41), Kaeden Bell, Spring (40)
Strikeouts – Ava Brown, Lake Creek (251), Emma Strood, Clear Springs (215), Kynlei Chapman, Willis (211), Molly Yoo, Cy Ranch (168), Chloe Riassetto, Friendswood (153) Mary Martinez, Kingwood (151), Elise Adams, Memorial (147)
Other Teams to Watch
HOUSTON – Before the first pitch of the 2022 season was thrown, Kingwood coach Lauren Hendrix dug into the photo archive.
On January 10, Hendrix posted a photo of her and a little girl wearing sunglasses, medal around her neck from the camp she just attended and still wearing her a batting glove on her left hand standing in the home dugout at Kingwood High School.
That little girl was a six-year-old Addyson Sheppard.
“She came to camp every single year since she was Kindergarten and she’s wanted to play here for so long,” Hendrix said.
Now, that once future Mustang - who never missed a Kingwood-Atascocita rivalry game growing up - is up with the big club as a freshman at Kingwood High School.
“I’ve known Coach Hendrix since I was about 5 years old and being a part of this program is something I’ve looked forward to for a long time,” Sheppard said.
As Sheppard worked her way up through the select ball circuit on the way to high school, Hendrix and company were watching. They’ve been “excited” watching her journey.
“It’s been super fun watching her grow up,” Hendrix said. “I’ve been following her career, so I knew what we were getting.”
She is not so little anymore…from camper to Varsity as a Freshman. Happy birthday to our rock solid, reptile loving, awesome freshman, @25Addyson! Wishing you lots of joy & adventure this year. @CoachRavlin @HumbleISD_KHS 💙 @alexxcolonn @haley45lee @Jourdyn_13 @LacyGregory_ pic.twitter.com/eNnvjqucMS— Kingwood Softball (@KHSSoftball) January 11, 2022
What the Mustangs got was a freshman who could stand into the box against the best competition in Houston and not flinch.
But her “welcome to the show” moment came during the fall.
“When I hit my first high school home run during fall ball,” Sheppard said. “Even though these games were for practice, I realized that I could compete with the top-level athletes in our area.”
That confidence carried over to the spring, where Sheppard has hit the cover off the ball through Kingwood’s run to a 21-7 overall record.
Sheppard leads the team with 34 RBIs, 10 home runs and 11 doubles. The freshman is second on the team in hits with 33 and third in batting average at .440.
“Coming off of a strong fall where I was named the TFL Fall Spotlight Athlete, I expected my numbers to carry over,” Sheppard said. “During the early season I didn’t have the numbers I wanted, but I put in the extra work to execute for my team. I’m very proud of my results so far and am looking forward to helping my team in any way I can.”
This kid! This kid right here…absolute beast. @25Addyson, we have really enjoyed having you at all the games over the years, but I think I speak for all of us when I say we are SO GLAD you are now in uniform as one of us!! CRUSHED 2 more bombs tonight! 💣 💣 #bleedblue #FAM1LY pic.twitter.com/sHrVfJoFUK— Kingwood Softball (@KHSSoftball) March 10, 2022
So, did Hendrix expect this?
“From her … yeah, I did,” Hendrix said. “She’s got a great eye and a killer instinct. She is all business in practice, she works hard after practice. She probably takes 300 extra cuts a day. So, when you put in the work you have the confidence, and you have the capability of being good.”
Having the start to her high school career that she has, Sheppard said it is “encouraging” to see how she is matching up against the talent in Houston.
What has also helped her quick maturation process into a varsity player in one of the tougher softball districts in the city has been her teammates.
“It has been a blessing that the upperclassman have welcomed me in to the team,” Sheppard said. “They have been encouraging and insightful while helping me navigate through my freshman season. I couldn’t ask for a better group of teammates to have my back.
“This freshman year has made an impact on my life and I will remember it for years to come.”