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2018 Softball Coach of the Year: Skyline thrived behind Ritter’s emphasis on unity

John Ritter Rich Cooley/Daily

FRONT ROYAL – Sometimes a few words can hold so much meaning. For Skyline head coach John Ritter, everything he’s tried to build his program on spilled out in a quick question posed by one of his players on a hot June afternoon in Salem.

The Hawks had just fallen to Tabb, 6-0, in the VHSL Class 3 state semifinals at the Moyer Sports Complex on June 8. Their season was over. And yet, as they were leaving the ballpark, Ritter recalled recently, senior right fielder Lexi Grim posed a question.

“Practice tomorrow at 4 o’clock, Coach John?” Ritter remembered Grim asking.

Ritter replied, “You be there, I’ll be there.”

It was a short exchange, one not to be taken in a literal sense, and yet it perfectly encapsulated everything Skyline’s softball program has been about since Ritter, the Northern Virginia Daily’s 2018 Softball Coach of the Year, took over the program three years ago. The Hawks have, quite simply, enjoyed their time together, and have built a fast-rising tradition of success on the foundation of respect for each other, respect for the coaches and the idea that nothing is more important than what best serves the team.

The 2018 season, as much as any during Ritter’s short tenure, showed the Hawks’ knack for building strong, enduring bonds that translate into on-field success.

“They’ve been really good at that,” Ritter said several days after his team’s season came to an end one win short of the making the school’s first-ever state championship game appearance. “There’s not a lot of drama on this team, which I like. I’m not a drama person. I don’t deal with it well. But they have been very, very good about, when they came in, their motivation and what they wanted. I mean that’s the first thing out of their mouths. When them 10 kids are sitting there and they’re like ‘we’re shooting for states, that’s our main goal right there.’ And they gave themselves an opportunity.”

Skyline, built around a large core of players who had started for Ritter since he took over in 2016, was certainly talented. The Hawks returned eight starters from a 2017 team that came within a win of reaching the state tournament, and that team had contained a strong contingent of young talent that had achieved the same feat in 2016.

Given its experience, Skyline was bound for more great things in 2018. But above all else, Ritter said it was the Hawks’ camaraderie that provided the fuel for their first trip to the state tournament.

“I think the earlier success had a lot to do with it,” said Ritter, whose team twice lost to Warhill in the regional semifinals in 2016 and 2017, “but I think one of the things I’ve seen this year that wasn’t as big as it was the last two years, was how tight they were. And that’s a lot. You’re gonna spend three months with this group, you’ve somewhat gotta be like a family.”

In the weeks during Skyline’s playoff run, the team’s unity was brought up often by players, typically in response to a question regarding what made the Hawks click during a postseason in which they were dominant in four games leading up to the state semifinals.

The Hawks’ infectious friendliness even enveloped the coaching staff.

“This group does very well at sucking you into their … game plan of what they wanted to do,” Ritter said. “Even (junior varsity assistant coach Robin Richardson) coming up at the end of the season, she goes ‘my gosh, it was kind of touch-and-go the first couple practices,’ and she said ‘the next thing I know, I got sucked right in.’ And that’s how they are.”

The bond allowed Skyline’s talent to truly shine. Behind a “one-game-at-a-time approach,” the Hawks rode an 11-game winning streak into the state semifinal game against Tabb, a streak that included a Region 3B championship game victory over William Monroe, the first regional title for any athletic program at the school.

The Hawks ended the year with two first team Class 3 all-state selections in senior pitcher Tamara Grayson (17-3, 1.54 ERA, 132 strikeouts) and junior left fielder Abbey Lee. Three others – junior catcher Rachel Sirbaugh (.646 batting average, 30 RBIs), sophomore shortstop Emma Benson (.436, 25 runs) and freshman second baseman Lexi Clatterbuck (.486, 17 RBIs) – made legitimate cases but were ultimately shut out of all-state recognition.

On the whole, the 2018 season was fairly smooth sailing for Ritter. He did have to do more lineup juggling than he’d done in his previous two seasons, he said, and likely one of the biggest challenges the former travel coach faced was trying to get Grayson back on track after she uncharacteristically struggled through the season’s first six games.

Following a 16-8 loss to Sherando on April 9, Ritter had a conversation with Grayson about her recent woes. That friendly chat, which included some rare colorful language from Ritter and centered around Grayson developing a proper amount of arrogance in the circle, seemed to fire up the Hawks’ star pitcher.

Grayson allowed 23 runs in her final 13 games and posted seven shutouts among her last 10 contests. She threw 27 straight scoreless innings in the playoffs.

“As a coach you’re wondering what you can do, how you can motivate her,” Ritter said.

“I don’t know if it was a confidence thing from me to her, how to handle the situation, but man, I mean she got on a freaking roll and it was like she finished up about like she finished up last year. That’s what you wanna see. Once that clicked in them last 12 games, I think she was like ‘OK, I’m on the bus now. I’m here.’ It ended up working out real great for us.”

Losing Grayson – one of three seniors on the 2018 roster alongside Grim and Natasha Grayson – certainly figures to be a big blow for a Skyline squad that has thrived behind her right arm for the past three seasons. Ritter, for one, is eager for the challenge next season holds.

“I’m looking forward to it,” he said. “I think we’re gonna surprise some people because they’re gonna think that T’s gone and we might not be that good. I think we can be that good.”