By Jeff Nations
STEPHENS CITY -- Taylor Jones delivered her best pitch during basketball season.
Jones, a junior at Shenandoah Valley Christian Academy, knew that Patriots freshman Samantha Yarnall played travel softball. The problem, of course, is that SVCA doesn't field a softball team.
That's where the pitch came in. Jones found a way to swing a bat, regardless of that lack of softball -- for the past three years, she's played on the Patriots' baseball team.
"Oh yeah, she's the only reason why I played," Yarnall said. "I'd been playing softball all my life. This is my first year at SVCA, so we played basketball together and got really close. Then she told me about playing baseball -- with boys -- and I'd never heard of that before, playing baseball with the guys. But she convinced me to come out and it's been really great. Being girls on a boys team has had its ups and downs, but it's always interesting. They're fun."
For a typical game, Jones and Yarnall compose 2/9ths of the Patriots' starting lineup. Jones has started at catcher since her freshman year, and has also seen time at second base and even in the outfield. Yarnall normally patrols left field, although she can play anywhere in the outfield.
It's an unusual sight in high school baseball, two girls -- both starters -- on the roster. SVCA coach Bobby Wheelock knows that, and admits he was curious as to just how other teams might react this season.
"I always wonder about that, but I never hear anything," Wheelock said. "I think they prove themselves by their play. Maybe they're talking in the dugout before the game and we can't hear them, but when they get out there and play you can see.
"I think maybe in their minds they come out like, 'Hey, it's a girl. Easy out.' But I think they learn real quick that's not the case."
They can play, all right. Jones, despite an injury to her throwing shoulder and other ailments that forced her out of the lineup for about two weeks, has been a stable presence behind the plate since she joined the team as a freshman. That year, she played with her older brother, Dan, who was a hard-throwing, standout pitcher for the Patriots.
Wheelock sees a lot of Dan Jones in his younger sister.
"She got toughened up a little bit, I'm sure, playing with him," Wheelock said. "Playing out here with the boys is nothing for her. She's tough enough to do it."
That bum shoulder has had a negative effect on her throws to second on stolen-base attempts, but when she's right Jones can zip it across the diamond just fine. And she's still fine on snap throws to first or third, as an unfortunate R-MA base runner learned when she gunned him down trying to steal third last week.
"The season hasn't exactly been great for me," Jones said. "I'm doing the best I can right now to get back at it."
The Patriots let Jones call pitches about half the time, another sign of the trust Wheelock and his staff have in their starting catcher.
"She's a great player in the field," Wheelock said. "Her arm's sore right now. She knows what to do with the ball. She works real hard blocking. And she can play great second base, if we need her there. And she can also play outfield, so she's really a utility player."
Jones bats lower in the lineup, sometimes ninth, but that's by design -- Wheelock likes to use that spot as a second leadoff hitter, and the switch-hitting Jones has a penchant for producing quality at-bats.
Yarnall often bats fifth for the Patriots, a juicy run-producing spot in the order, and she's been productive. This season, Yarnall has batted in the range of .280-.300 for SVCA, making her one of the team's best hitters. That's impressive, not because Yarnall is a girl, but rather because she'd never played baseball before this season.
"She adjusts quick," Wheelock said. "She really does take it all in on the first at-bat, then comes out there on the next one. She learns the first time, and then the next time out there she does it."
Yarnall was even a late starter in softball, not taking up the sport until she was 9 years old. That softball influence is still strong, though, as evidenced by her decidedly slap-happy swing. Wheelock said Yarnall has also had to adjust on the fly to the difference in pitching between baseball and softball. There's the increased velocity, for one thing, but also the off-speed pitching presents different challenges. Yarnall is used to pitches generally rising in softball; in baseball, all those breaking balls dart downward. Yarnall has made the adjustment.
"It seems to be effective," Wheelock said. "We're working with her, although I don't want to get all the softball out of her because I think she can probably play somewhere. And we may offer softball again here soon -- that would hurt me. But she does have a little bit of that slap to her swing, but it's effective and we can't ask for too much more out of somebody who's never played."
Now that she's settled into playing baseball, Yarnall isn't looking forward to transitioning back to softball. Jones has the leg up in experience there, too.
"It'll be hard, but once you get the hang of it you'll be fine," Jones said. "I was like, 'Whoa, this is a lot different. Since it's 90-foot bases for baseball and it's 60 for softball, you feel like you're at like lightning speed. But once you get back into it, you'll be fine."
For now, the two girls are a major part of a boys team. SVCA has already qualified for the VACA state tournament and start regional play with a home game on Friday.
Both Jones and Yarnall have every intention of returning for another season next year.
"It's different, but it's really fun," Jones said. "We're like one big family. We've always been one big family and it's just awesome to see how no one minds us playing since we're girls. They respect us and they're OK with us."
Contact Sports Editor Jeff Nations at 540-465-5137 ext. 161, or firstname.lastname@example.org>