For Ashleigh Grace, North Forsyth’s 2018 run to the Region 5-7A softball championship was just as exhilarating from the railings of the dugout as it was for everyone making the plays on the field.
Grace wasn’t there by choice: A freak accident right before the season began rendered her unable to play her sophomore season. She was always a part of the team, and the Raiders dedicated their entire season to her, but despite all the love and support she received from her teammates, her desire to compete was never quenched.
“Last year when they won, of course, I was so happy for them,” Grace said. “In the moment, it was really good, but then going home after the game, I wished that I got to be a part of it and got to help win it.”
A year later, she will get a very good chance to do just that. Grace is set to return to the backstop for the Raiders for 2019, and with almost all of their key players from their 2018 title run coming back, North looks to be a heavy favorite to hoist the region championship trophy once again.
“They did it without me, so I feel like we can do it again and be even better than we were last year just because we have so much more,” Grace said.
For the Raiders, their success starts at the plate. North was far and away the best offensive team in the region last year, with 213 total runs scored. The Raiders’ lineup has plenty of weapons like Samford commit Abby Martin, fleet-footed leadoff hitter McKayla Cothran and Hailey Mize, who hit .443 with nine doubles, last year. The lineup’s centerpiece is Georgia Tech commit Mallorie Black, who hit .457 with six home runs and 11 doubles with a 1.344 OPS during her junior season.
“She's definitely a threat,” head coach Jim Cahill said. “Other teams in the region probably look at her like, ‘We don't want that person to beat us.’”
But while the lineup looks to be very strong, pitching depth will be an issue the Raiders will be hoping to improve on. Mize morphed into North’s No. 1 option towards the end of 2018, recording a 2.84 ERA over 91 innings. She mixes in an effective changeup with her two primary pitches, a screwball and a dropball. She also has a penchant for being efficient: Cahill recounts one game where she threw 91 strikes in a 100-pitch outing.
“I've always been that kind of pitcher that doesn't let the other team get to me (with) their cheers and stuff,” Mize said. “I just motivate myself and stay in with my catcher and just work on not so much speed, but moving the ball.”
After Mize, Kylie Sanders and Sara Lowe will be the Raiders’ remaining pitching options. Cahill hopes that as the season goes on, his team can become more efficient in the circle.
“I feel like we struggled at times with walking people last year,” Cahill said. “Hopefully we can reduce the number of walks. We should be pretty successful. You can't give any freebies. We do a good job of playing good defense but one thing you can't defend is walks.”
With a region championship in tow and with a ton of talent coming back, the Raiders’ mood is one of pure optimism. They know how tough achieving that accomplishment is, though, and are expecting every other team fighting for that same goal to play them even harder. North hopes that kind of pressure will just serve to make them better.
“I definitely do feel like we have a target on our backs this year but I don't think it will get to us,” Black said. “We don't really think about that during the games, but I definitely think teams want to beat us because we're the defending region champs. But that's honestly just a motivator and it's going to make it a lot of fun.”