Smith helps Warriors take advantage of experience

Clarence Smith

Clarence Smith knew Sherando’s softball team was set up for success in 2015. A roster filled with eight seniors, a handful of which had previously earned postseason accolades, will certainly instill a bit of confidence in any head coach.

With that potential in mind, Smith and the Warriors aimed high, and then performed. Coming off a 2014 season in which it went 8-10-1, Sherando more than doubled its win total from a season ago, claimed the Northwestern District regular season championship and earned a spot in the regional tournament for the first time in three years.

“We had some lofty expectations and some goals at the beginning of the season and one of them was to come out of the conference with one of those regional bids, which we did,” said Smith, who just finished his fourth season as the Warriors’ head coach. “We did put on a pretty nice win streak and toward the middle of the season got hot at the right time. A couple of big wins, a lot of individual goals accomplished, saw a lot of good things. A lot of fun softball.”

Though Sherando’s season ended with a pair of losses when Smith and the Warriors (17-6) ran into two “buzzsaws” in Woodgrove — the eventual Group 4A state runner-up — and Fluvanna County in the Conference 21 championship and Region 4A North quarterfinals, respectively, there was plenty of winning for the Warriors in 2015.

Smith, the Northern Virginia Daily’s 2015 Softball Coach of the Year, led Sherando to 17 wins this spring — a total that included a 14-game winning streak — and a 7-1 record against the Warriors’ Northwestern District competition.

Sherando’s large crop of returning seniors certainly helped, but Smith said it was the arrival of senior Hannah Lockhart, a Millbrook transfer who handled the primary pitching responsibilities for the Warriors this spring, that “solidified our hopes and our aspirations.”

“We had that proverbial horse to step into the circle and take the ball for us,” Smith said of Lockhart, who had a 14-6 record, a 3.71 ERA and 119 strikeouts this season.

While Lockhart held opposing teams in check for much of the season, the Warriors’ offense mashed its way to impressive numbers. Sherando averaged 10.3 runs per game this spring and featured four players with a batting average above .400, as Lockhart (.500), junior Lexi Schlag (.482), and seniors Carly Nixon (.443) and Heidi Brown (.411) all accomplished the feat.

The Warriors also had seven players hit at least one home run — Schlag and senior Katie Manson led the way with three apiece — five players with at least 20 runs batted in (Manson led the area with 35) and four players with at least 11 steals. Nixon, the 2015 Northwestern District Player of the Year, finished with 24 steals and 38 runs scored as the Warriors’ leadoff hitter, and Smith said Schlag, a Strasburg transfer, “really helped drive our lineup” from the middle of the batting order.

Smith credited Sherando’s offensive success to the work of his assistant coaches, particularly Frank Paige, who served as the team’s hitting coach in his first year with the program.

“He really paid dividends and it helps girls understand that you have to have a certain goal in mind, an objective when you step into the batter’s box instead of just standing up there and hitting the big yellow ball that’s coming at you,” Smith said. “We did a great job with situational hitting.”

Smith said the most difficult part about having a team with as much firepower as Sherando had this spring was filling out the lineup card.

“You’ve got capable girls and they all want to hit in that top third of the lineup, so if they’re hitting in that middle third or back third they’re working extra hard to try to get up there to show me and the coaching staff as well as their teammates that they’re capable of driving this team as well,” he said.

Sherando did hit some bumps in the road early on, however, as a combination of poor weather and tough competition led to a pair of losses to start the season. But it wasn’t until seven games into the season that the Warriors received a wake-up call.

Following a 4-1 loss to district rival James Wood on April 16, Smith said the Warriors “took control of things and really imposed their own will,” and the confidence level began to soar. Sherando went on to win 14 straight games while averaging 12.7 runs during that span.

“It helped to refocus the girls and helped them understand that nothing’s promised and nothing’s given to us and they worked hard,” Smith said of the James Wood loss. “The practices after that were very spirited. They came out with a goal in each practice and it was basically like another team that stepped onto the field in between chalk lines after that.”

Smith will certainly have a lot of holes to fill next season, as he must replace nearly two-thirds of a roster that he said displayed the strongest team bond in his 10 years of coaching. But of the eight graduated seniors, it may be the loss of Nixon, Brown and Sara Stickman that will be felt most by Smith — that trio has played for Smith since he took over the varsity softball program four years ago.

“That’s a special group that just graduated. … Carly Nixon, Sarah Stickman and Heidi Brown came up with me and they were there all four years,” Smith said. “That’s another intangible, those girls were with me for four years so they kind of know what brand of softball that I like to coach and what we try to accomplish.”

Contact staff writer Brad Fauber at 540-465-5137 ext. 161, or bfauber@nvdaily.com