By Tommy Keeler Jr.
WOODSTOCK -- Lisa Rhodes noticed a real change in her players even early on in the softball season. The Central softball coach saw her players being much more positive, and that positivity led to a special season for the Falcons.
"The girls' attitudes were always positive. Their outlook was always positive and optimistic. Their work ethic was positive," Rhodes said. "Nothing ever got them down. In instances that they would have kind of caved or succumbed to the pressure last year, they didn't this year and I tried to reinforce that with them a lot. It's all in their attitude and all in how they approach the game. They can make or break it, they can choose to keep the momentum up or they can choose to let the momentum go down.
"It's all in their decision how they want to approach the hard stuff, the challenges. They just totally responded to the challenges differently this year than they did last year."
Rhodes was able to get the most out of the players this season, helping earn her The Northern Virginia Daily's 2014 Softball Coach of the Year.
The Falcons started off 5-2, including a 9-1 loss to rival Clarke County. Then the Falcons really began to soar.
Central won six consecutive games, including impressive wins over Loudoun Valley, Warren County and Skyline. They then lost to Shenandoah County rival Strasburg, but bounced back from that with four straight wins to close out the regular season.
The regular-season finale was a 4-1 victory over Clarke County. It was the Falcons' first win over the Eagles in four years.
"They're a really solid program, and it was nice to get a win against them," Rhodes said. "The team, that whole afternoon, they were focused. They really were."
Rhodes had some solid senior leadership on the squad and some experienced players, but she also had some younger players that had to step into some key roles.
Freshman Kylie Stottlemyer took over at catcher, while Shennan Waldron moved into the starting shortstop role. Brooke Sager took over in right field when senior Katelyn Poston went down for the season with mononucleosis, while Lexi Rau was called up from JV to take Poston's spot on the roster.
"It worked out well," Rhodes said. "We had these holes to fill and the girls were there to fill them, without much of a learning curve, without much of a transition period at all. So it was great."
Rhodes said she loved watching the team come together as a group and the way they worked together to have such a strong year.
Towards the end of the regular season, Rhodes had an animal-themed practice, where each of the players had to dress up like an animal for practice. Rhodes said she just felt like things were getting mundane.
"We were starting to tense up a little bit," Central sophomore pitcher Bekah Ansbro said. "I think that really just calmed us down, and reminded us that it's just a game, and you just got to do what you can do and be the best you can be."
Once the postseason arrived, the Falcons didn't lose any momentum. Central won the Conference 28 title, beating Loudoun Valley, 5-2, in the final.
"Loudoun Valley is a team that I have a history with since I was in high school," Rhodes said. "We [Turner Ashby] beat them for the regional title when I was in high school. They still make me nervous, and that was a big deal. That was the best game they played all year -- hands down. That was awesome to see them play that way."
The Falcons lost 1-0 in 10 innings to eventual Group 3A state semifinalist Brentsville in the Region 3A East quarterfinals, but still had a great season and finished with a 17-4 record.
Rhodes played at Turner Ashby High School, where she played for current Eastern Mennonite University softball coach J.D. McCurdy. She also played softball in college at Bridgewater College, where she was the Old Dominion Athletic Conference Pitcher of the Year her senior season. She was a varsity assistant coach at Loudoun County for three years, and then a volunteer assistant at Central for a season before taking the head coach job two years ago.
Rhodes said what she loves the most about coaching is just trying to pass on her love of the game, and trying to show the players what they can accomplish through playing.
"I love how it brings teams together," Rhodes said. "Knowing that it has the power to bring girls together the way it did for these girls this year -- I just I love it. I try to remind them that this game gives you so many more things than just the physical ability, there's so much more to it than that."
The Falcons lose five seniors, but still have plenty of returning players that could keep the program going strong for years to come.
Rhodes said she hopes the younger players learn from this season.
"My goal for them for next year is to maintain the positivity," Rhodes said. "With losing the senior class, it's going to be a good challenge for them to make sure that they stay as positive and upbeat and believe they're as capable as they were this past year -- and they are. And we're losing some crucial girls. It's going to hurt. We're going to miss them a lot, but if they stay positive and let themselves help each other I think they can carry it on."
Contact Assistant Sports Editor Tommy Keeler at 540-465-5137 ext. 168, or firstname.lastname@example.org Follow on Twitter @tkeelernvd