QA SOFTBALL

Head coach Kim Betts, third from left back row, assistant Shana Corder, far right, and the Queen Anne’s County softball team were all smiles May 25 after defeating Cambridge-South Dorchester to clinch the North Bayside title.

Kim Betts remembers the tears.

These weren’t tears of defeat, like the ones Queen Anne’s County High’s head softball coach saw the afternoon of May 25, 2019, when the Lions lost to La Plata in the Class 2A state championship at the University of Maryland’s Robert E. Taylor Stadium.

These tears were different.

Twenty-twenty was going to be their year. It was the year Queen Anne’s thought it had the goods to take that final step and earn a state title. All but two players were back from the 2019 team that had gone 19-4, won the program’s first regional crown, and reached the state championship for the first time in school history. As they worked through their first week of practice, Betts and assistant Shana Corder saw strength at every position on the field, every spot in the batting order.

They just couldn’t wait.

But they would have to.

On March 13, 2020, Betts, Corder and their players crowded around a small phone on their home field and listened as Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan delivered a speech that virtually crushed all their hopes. There would be no high school spring sports season in 2020 because of a pandemic called COVID-19.

“It was so quiet,” Betts said. “And I looked around and saw nothing but tears and devastation.”

“My heart was shattered into a million pieces,” said Tristyn Stewart, a transfer from Chesapeake High who had wowed her new coaches in that first week of practice. “It was very upsetting to hear that my junior year was coming to an end as I was going into it thinking this is probably going to be one of the best teams that I’ve played on in my years of high school. This team had a lot of potential to be very, very good and win a state championship.”

“It was pretty much devastating, because even from middle school I kind of knew that junior year we’re going to have a special year, with how good our seniors were and how advanced my group would grow by then,” said Kamryn Brandt, the Lions’ rock-solid catcher.

Plans for offseason conditioning offered a glimmer of hope that maybe things were loosening up. The softball team got in one session in November, and that was that.

The normal fall 2020 season was wiped out, along with the 2020-21 winter season.

Finally, Bayside Conference athletic directors, superintendents and administrators thought COVID-19 had begun to fade enough where they could piece together an abbreviated fall season in the spring. There would be no conference, region or state championships to play for, but at least they would be playing. There were long pauses and cancellations along the way, but the season was completed.

Despite those bumps, Bayside officials and administrators thought enough forward progress had been made that they could put together a conference championship format for the spring season.

The Lions opened with back-to-back shutouts of Kent County and North Caroline. They defeated Colonel Richardson on the road May 12 for Betts’ 100th career victory. Lopsided victories over St. Michaels and North Dorchester followed, pushing Queen Anne’s record to 5-0.

“I feel like they just came out explosive from the get-go,” Betts said of her team. “They’re so much fun to watch. They have so much energy. They’re all gamers. They’re extremely hard workers. And we’re just loaded with talent. I look every game, and it always seems to be someone new. Each game I look to see who’s going to get us started and then the rest just seem to follow. It’s so contagious.”

Then on May 19, the Maryland Public Secondary Schools Athletic Association’s Board of Control overwhelmingly passed a proposal to bring back the spring state championships. The Bayside scrapped its conference tournament format to make room for states. Betts had often heard the 2020 Lions referred to as “the greatest team to never play.” Though it had graduated some key players from that team, the 2021 Lions would now have a chance to make a run at the state title that was ripped from their mitts 14 months earlier.

“So much excitement,” Betts said of the state tournament news. “They had so much preparation, anticipation for that 2020 season to get back to that same level of play. And they know that they have something to prove. They feel they’ve been robbed. We’ve said all season, ‘We’re not done yet.’ And the back of our shirt reads, ‘Make it yours.’ And that’s what we’re determined to do.

“In the beginning, we knew the potential Bayside title was absolutely no substitute for a chance at another state run,” Betts said. “But at the same time we were just happy that we were getting a season, and we didn’t want to take any minute on the dirt for granted. We had said at the beginning of the season as well, that it had been 716 days without high school softball. So it was 716 days since we stepped off the field at the University of Maryland.”

In its first game after the May 19 announcement, Queen Anne’s routed Kent Island, 14-6. An 8-0 shutout of longtime rival Easton followed, setting up a first-place showdown with unbeaten Cambridge-South Dorchester and its star pitcher Maddie Pleasants.

“I’ve never seen or been a part of a team that was more mentally prepared for a game and just ready to go,” Brandt said of the Cambridge-SD clash. “It was great. The energy throughout the entire game. We knew we were the last two undefeated teams and we wanted that undefeated season.”

The Lions got just that.

Brandt homered and drove in two runs. Stewart went 2 for 3 with a triple. Bre Athey also went 2 for 3 with a pair of RBIs. Ryleigh Jordan and Belle Fields each singled. And then there was senior ace Cameron Whiteford, who struck out a career-high 16 and drove in a run in a 7-0 victory.

“Pleasants is a great pitcher,” Betts said of the Vikings’ standout, who prior to the Queen Anne’s game had crafted a no-hitter and four one-hitters this season. “We all know that and we respect that. We knew when the game started that we were going to have to make some adjustments, and we were probably going to have to make it through our lineup at least once so everybody could see a pitch and have an at-bat. And then that fourth inning we just jumped all over it. And like I said, that first hit came and then they all followed suit. It was amazing. It was just shot after shot. I mean they were hammering the ball.”

One week later, the Lions capped a 9-0 regular season with their third consecutive shutout — a 5-0 blanking of St. Michaels — as Whiteford fanned a career-high 17 batters and went 3 for 3 with a home run.

“That kid was devastated last year,” Betts said of Whiteford, who is headed to the University of Rhode Island. “I saw so much hurt in her eyes in particular (the day the 2020 season was canceled) and a lot of silence. She worked so hard in the offseason to not only gain strength, but a little more speed. She worked on her spins. She was so ready to get back to the mound and prove what she could do.

“She’s made big gains, more pop, and definitely she has composure on the mound,” Betts added of Whiteford, who is 7-0 with an earned-run average of .29 over 47 innings this year. “She doesn’t seem to get rattled even if the other team does put up a run or two. We haven’t really been in a situation where we’ve had to fight back. But even if a team puts up a run or two it doesn’t faze her. She knows that our offense will get the job done and get the runs back for her, which I think is very comforting on the mound.”

That offense has impressed. The Lions have outscored their opponents 108-13 this season and have a team batting average of .434, led by Stewart, who leads the state with a .600 average.

And while they’ve enjoyed a perfect regular season, Queen Anne’s “we’re-not-done-yet” mentality is still very much in play heading into Wednesday’s Class 2A East Region II semifinal against Kent Island.

“This is what it would have looked like,” Betts said, referring to 2020. “We have such power and speed, one to nine. It’s truly amazing. And I think what is extra special about this group is they’re more than teammates. I mean they are truly really good friends and they consider themselves as a family. I think that has a huge impact on our success.”

Said Stewart: “This is the definition of a family right here, what I’m playing on. We want to bring home the state championship. We want that. And we have all of our eyes on the prize. Even though we are all family and we laugh around and have fun on the field, we all know at the end of the day what we’re working towards. And we work harder and harder for it each practice, each time we step out on that field.”

And though the Lions are unbeaten and the No. 1 seed headed into today’s semifinal, Brandt said that’s no longer the focus.

“The goal is always win the ones that really matter,” Brandt said. “It’s great that we’ve won and gone undefeated because that set us up for a great seed. But going forward it’s a clean slate and we’ve got to prove ourselves once again.”

Follow me on Twitter @Bill_Haufe. Email me at bhaufe@stardem.com

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