Even in defeat, Falcons proud of historic season

RADFORD – It was a season of firsts for Central High School’s softball team.

The Falcons won their first regional tournament game in school history, and made their first appearance in a regional championship game. They qualified for their first state tournament, won their first state semifinal and advanced to a state championship game for the first time.

Central’s 2016 season ended a win short of one final first for the program – a state championship – a bid halted in heart-wrenching fashion by Lebanon’s walk-off home run in the 16th inning of Saturday’s Group 2A state championship game at Radford University.

But even with the sting of defeat still fresh in the moments after their 2-1 loss, the Falcons were flush with pride in everything they had accomplished this spring.

“Honestly I do believe we surprised ourselves,” Falcons sophomore Darden Lear said. “… If somebody were to ask us (earlier this season) if we were going to the state championship we may have said, ‘Oh yeah, totally,’ as a joke. … Just getting this far is a huge accomplishment.”

Central nearly pulled it off against an upstart and young Lebanon squad that placed third in the Clinch Mountain Conference regular-season race before getting hot in the playoffs. Behind a final appearance from standout pitcher Bekah Ansbro, the Falcons held strong through the longest softball state championship game in Virginia High School League history.

“Around the 13th or 14th inning – I lost track – but I had said to the girls, there’s a famous quote by Nolan Ryan that’s, ‘In life, as in baseball, sometimes you want to and you have to reach down and prove something,'” said Ansbro, who threw over 200 pitches in the loss. “The score didn’t go our way but I think we proved a lot.”

Central’s postseason run, which included a 2-0 win over Glenvar in last Friday’s state semifinal game, was powered by differing factors, depending on who you ask.

Ansbro said it was the energy the Falcons (22-5) brought to each game.

“I don’t think we really realized what we were doing,” she said with a laugh, “we just knew we were winning ballgames. We just tried to go out there every day and play our best softball and have fun and prolong it as long as we could.”

Lear said it was the camaraderie the Falcons formed after beginning the year “kind of in our own different groups.”

“I think you just have to rely on the people around you,” Lear said. “I think this season we’ve definitely learned that every person is important on the field. … You have to know that the person next to you is gonna make that catch. It’s trust. It’s trusting the person, that they’re gonna catch it because you can’t do that. And that’s one thing about softball. It’s a team sport. You can’t just go out do it on your own.”

Alex Mantz, a freshman, said the Falcons were trying to give a proper sendoff to Ansbro and fellow senior Dana Painter, and head coach Lisa Rhodes, who coached her final game for Central after four years at the helm.

“I think it really was, ‘We’ve gotta do it for these guys. We’ve gotta do it for us. We’re gonna get this far,'” Mantz said. “And we did.”

Rhodes said it was Central’s heart, the “biggest and most important ingredient,” that pushed the Falcons to previously unseen heights this spring.

“You can do drills and you can do reps, you can do cuts and you can practice everything, but when it comes right down to it you just have to have the heart to wanna be better and to win,” said Rhodes as she fought back tears. “And that’s what they had this year.”

Central graduates just two seniors and figures to return an experienced group next spring that will include rising seniors Brooke Sager, Lexi Rau, Shennan Waldron, Autumn Shelton, Gwyneth George, Alisia Turner, Erika Thorpe and Kylie Stottlemyer and rising junior Kristina Stead.

Lear said “all of us wanna come back” next season, a testament to the bond forged during the most successful softball season in Central history.

“We had points this year where it took some extra effort on their part to just push through some things that we were dealing with, and they did,” Rhodes said. “I told them at the beginning of the season that this is the most talent that we’ve had since I’ve been here and they decided that they were gonna do it. And they did.”

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