2016 Softball Coach of the Year: Rhodes enjoys final ride with Falcons

Lisa Rhodes

WOODSTOCK – Lisa Rhodes had experienced a high school softball state championship game before.

That was back in 2001, when, as a sophomore at Turner Ashby High School, Rhodes pitched the first three innings of an eventual 2-0 loss to Powhatan in the Virginia High School League Group AA state championship game at Salem’s Moyer Sports Complex.

Fifteen years later, as the head coach for Central High School’s softball team, Rhodes returned to a state title game. This time, instead of standing in the pitching circle with a ball in hand, Rhodes looked out upon the Falcons’ postseason push while perched atop a bucket in the dugout and standing in the third base coach’s box.

“Totally different as a coach,” Rhodes said last week. “Totally different, because it is more like a front row seat. It’s almost even like you’re riding shotgun, because (the players are) driving it. They’re the ones in the car and they’ve got the gas and they’ve got the steering wheel, and you’re just sitting there like, ‘Yeah man, let’s go. Let’s do this. I’m here, I’m ready for this.’ And they just, they drove right into it.”

The Falcons drove that car to destinations that went previously unvisited. There was Central’s first-ever regional tournament win, a 4-1 victory over Stuarts Draft on May 30 in the Region 2A East tournament quarterfinals. A 1-0 win over Nottoway in the semifinals followed two days later, a victory that sent the Falcons into their first regional championship game (a 4-0 loss to Page County) and secured the program’s first state tournament appearance.

The Falcons drove on through Glenvar – a program with five VHSL state championships to its credit – in a 2-0 win in the state semifinals on June 10 in Salem, setting Central up for its first shot at a state championship the following day. It was only then, in the sweltering heat at Radford University, in a grinding 16-inning marathon against Lebanon for the Group 2A state title, that the Falcons finally ran out of gas. A walk-off home run with two outs in the bottom of the 16th inning gave Lebanon a 2-1 win and brought Central’s joy ride to an end.

Through it all, Rhodes, The Northern Virginia Daily’s 2016 Softball Coach of the Year, kept a smile on her face – a reminder to her players to remain confident, have fun and stay loose as the Falcons motored deeper and deeper into the playoffs – while putting faith in the players’ ability to execute on the field.

“That’s a different level of patience, is being able to guide the girls and then trust them to just take care of it themselves,” Rhodes said.

Armed with a prolific pitcher in senior Bekah Ansbro – a four-year starter, George Mason University signee and two-time all-state award winner – Rhodes said she felt the Falcons were as talented as any group she had coached in her four seasons with Central. She told the team as much before the 2016 season began.

But even as Central raced out to a 7-0 record to start the spring, the Falcons still had yet to find cohesiveness, the product of introducing three new, young faces to a group left largely intact from the previous season, Rhodes said.

By the end of the regular season Central was 17-3, with two of those losses coming to Madison County, a traditional power within the Bull Run District and Conference 35. It wasn’t until the Falcons’ first playoff game at Clarke County in the conference tournament semifinals, however, that Central experienced its turning point.

“We started playing better ball as the season progressed, and then we get to the conference tournament and that first game against Clarke it was energy like I hadn’t seen,” Rhodes said. “They had gelled and they were showing up to play.”

Central went on to beat Clarke County, 4-0, and then carried that momentum into a 1-0 win over Madison County in the Conference 35 championship two days later.

Close, low-scoring games became the theme for the Falcons in the playoffs, as they leaned heavily on Ansbro (0.67 ERA, 289 strikeouts in 178.2 innings pitched) and a defense that featured experienced juniors at key positions, including Shennan Waldron at shortstop, Kylie Stottlemyer at catcher and Erika Thorpe, Autumn Shelton and Lexi Rau in the outfield.

Offensively, the Falcons averaged only 1.9 runs per game in the postseason and finished the season with just two regular starters who hit over .300 – Ansbro (.362, two home runs, 15 RBIs) and sophomore Kristina Stead (.333, team-high eight doubles and 28 hits). Central used sacrifice bunts extensively to generate scoring opportunities.

“When I was at that level in high school that was what won our games, was being about execute the small ball, because you have games that are one to nothing, two to nothing, extra innings,” Rhodes said. “You’ve gotta be able to manufacture that extra run however needed, and our postseason games we won two to zero, one to nothing. I mean they were just one or two runs that made the difference.”

Central will lose just two seniors to graduation (Ansbro and Dana Painter) heading into next season and figure to have eight returning seniors with starting experience, although Rhodes won’t be along for the ride in 2017. The Bridgewater native put in her resignation in April and will be moving back to Rockingham County, a switch that she said has been her “ultimate goal” for quite some time.

When asked following Central’s loss in the state championship game what her future plans are, Rhodes wasn’t certain.

“Next spring will be my first season without softball since I was 7, so I don’t know,” she said.

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