Hitting their stride: Hawks playing best softball of season entering state quarterfinal game vs. Indians

Skyline's Emma Benson races to third on a steal play during their game against Spotsylvania on May 29. The Hawks host Southampton in the VHSL Class 3 state quarterfinals at 5 p.m. Tuesday. Rich Cooley/Daily

FRONT ROYAL – Skyline softball coach John Ritter said the Hawks made a deal prior the start of the 2018 season, the parameters of which included taking things one game at a time and not letting personal goals take priority over what’s best for the team. That focus on the here and now is culminating in some of the best softball the Hawks have played since Ritter took over the program in 2016, and the timing couldn’t be better.

Skyline is set to host Southampton in the VHSL Class 3 state quarterfinals in a 5 p.m. matchup today, the program’s first-ever state tournament appearance. The Hawks do so riding a 10-game winning streak that has included three consecutive shutouts.

“The best thing about them right now is you don’t wanna peak here too early, and I think right now they’re starting to peak,” said Ritter, whose team won the school’s first regional title in any sport with a 6-0 triumph over William Monroe in the Region 3B championship last Thursday. “I think that’s very well for them because pretty much all year they’ve kept themselves in check with everything.

“I actually think they’ve played the best softball they’ve played in probably the last three years,” he added of Skyline’s win streak.

The Hawks (16-3) put that success to the test against an unknown opponent in Southampton (19-3), a team that saw its own 12-game winning streak snapped in a 6-0 loss to unbeaten Tabb in the Region 3A championship game last Friday.

Skyline pitcher Tamara Grayson gives a thumbs up to catcher Rachel Sirbaugh before going into an inning during their recent game against Spotsylvania on May 29. Rich Cooley/Daily

Ritter said Southampton has a “couple good hitters,” plays good defense and has a strong pitcher in junior Madyson Wood, the Tri-Rivers District Player of the Year. Outside of that, the Hawks are largely in the dark regarding the Indians, who play their home games over 200 miles away in Courtland.

“We’ve all just stayed positive. I mean, we don’t really know what we’re getting ourselves into because we’ve never seen them before,” Hawks junior third baseman Valarie Martin said of Southampton. “But I think we’ll be fine. We’re all just trying to stay positive and hopefully we can do what we did every other game.”

Behind the right arm of senior pitcher Tamara Grayson, the Hawks have yet to surrender a run in the playoffs, which began for Skyline in last week’s regional tournament. Skyline has posted six shutouts in its last eight games.

Last week’s regional title for the Hawks came following two consecutive seasons of falling in the regional semifinal round, one win shy of a state tournament appearance.

“It’s like any other sport, your first year you get there, you learn. You learn from your second year and then by the time your third year rolls along, you pretty much know what to expect,” Ritter said. “They’ve actually buckled down. The practices have been a lot more serious, a lot harder. The upbeat (attitude) at everything is really good – keeping teammates up, talking during practice and all that stuff with them is just, it’s a lot different than it was the past couple years. I just think they’re that focused right now.”

Southampton enters the state quarterfinal contest averaging 10.2 runs per game, and Hilary Newlon (third base), Diamond Jones (outfield), Rachel McNeil (outfield), Jordyn Greene (catcher) and Maddie Simmons (utility) all joined Wood on the All-Tri-Rivers District first team in selections announced last month.

Ritter said Skyline will incorporate into its game plan what few scouting reports its received on Southampton, but the Hawks are prepared to put their confidence in the things that have carried them to the state quarterfinals.

“I don’t think we need to change anything,” sophomore shortstop Emma Benson said before practice on Monday. “I think we have to have a good practice today and stay focused, no messing around, and come in tomorrow with the mindset of we need to play like we’ve been playing these past four or five games. Not just coming in thinking we’ve won so many games and we’re just gonna come in and beat any team.”

Wood and the Indians are allowing only two runs per game this season. Southampton has posted eight shutouts and has allowed two runs or less in 17 of the team’s 22 games.

The six runs allowed in last week’s Region 3A championship loss to Tabb – during which Southampton committed seven errors – were the most the Indians have allowed since an 11-0 loss to Nansemond-Suffolk Academy in the season opener.

Ritter said Skyline has seen a benefit of facing live pitching in practice over the last few weeks – the Hawks scored 41 runs in the regional tournament, including 27 against Manassas Park in the quarterfinals – and he added that the Hawks have fared well against some of the better pitchers on their schedule this spring.

“I think the girls are in a situation where they’d rather see somebody that can throw the ball rather than somebody who struggles or doesn’t have the speed that most of the girls do,” Ritter said, “because right now you’re down to the (last eight teams). You’re gonna see the best of the best right now. And the better pitching you see, the better off it is for them.”

The Hawks also hope to get a boost from playing at home, where they’ve won 10 straight and are 11-2 overall.

“There’s just so much more support here than there would be if we had to drive all the way there. We just have so many more fans here,” Martin said. “I feel like we’re more confident when we play at home. It’s just familiar for us.”

Ritter added that Skyline is going to have to “set the tone early” against Southampton.

“They’ve been coming in really relaxed over the last eight, nine games, and I can usually tell when I get there,” Ritter said. “If I see that, I know we’re gonna play good.”

Tuesday’s winner advances to the Class 3 state semifinal game scheduled for 10 a.m. Friday at the Moyer Sports Complex in Salem. They will play the winner of the quarterfinal matchup between Tabb and William Monroe.