Editor’s Note: This is part of a series highlighting the accomplishments of every area team’s senior class as their senior seasons were cut short due to the coronavirus pandemic. It will culminate in Tallapoosa Publishers Inc.’s Virtual Senior Night. For more information on that, visit www.thewetumpkaherald.com.
In the season prior to Virginia Barber’s arrival at Stanhope Elmore, the Mustangs’ softball team had finished nine games below .500 and just witnessed its county rival, Wetumpka, win a state championship at Lagoon Park. A young team awaited Barber in her first season and several of this year’s seniors were a part of that group.
“This group has meant a lot to me,” Barber said. “They were used to doing what they wanted and when I came in, we kind of had a rocky start. I had to prove to them that I knew what I was doing. It was like a light switch went off and we connected. They started seeing we could do something if we stayed together.”
Five years later, the Mustangs are saying goodbye to that class which helped turn the program around and set the bar higher than Stanhope Elmore has ever seen it in the past.
In their high school career, the seniors racked up 78 wins, becoming the winningest class in program history despite the final season being shortened. The Mustangs also found themselves ranked in the Alabama Sports Writers Association poll for the first time.
“They just set a new standard for Stanhope Elmore softball,” Barber said. “They competed all the time. Even if we knew the other team was better, they competed. That’s the legacy that will be left with these younger girls.”
Several of the seniors were on the varsity roster for four seasons and while small impacts were made early in their careers, most of them made a big jump as upperclassmen.
Grambling signee Neci King got only 65 combined plate appearances in her first two seasons but she showed flashes at the plate and in the circle to show her potential. In her final three years, King led the Mustangs with 275 innings pitched and she posted .333 batting average, often taking the leadoff role.
“We knew she was athletic,” Barber said. “The biggest thing was her being an all-around athlete. As a pitcher as junior and senior, she was dominant but before that, you could play her anywhere. Everybody sees her as a pitcher but we have always seen her as an athlete. She was just so athletic that we could count on her for everything.”
King led the team with 39 stolen bases and 67 runs scored in her final four season. Often knocking in those runs were fellow seniors Morgan Carroll and Megan Smith.
Carroll racked up 72 RBIs and hit five home runs over three seasons as a starter. She moved to second base as a junior to fill a starting role in the infield where she finished with a .910 fielding percentage.
“We knew as soon as Kayla (Wright) graduated, (Carroll) would be the next one in that spot,” Barber said. “She was very timid at first. She had a lot to live up to but when she settled in, she was really helpful for us at second base and she was always good at the plate.”
Smith also made a major impact in the field, catching 181 innings behind the plate over her final two seasons.
“She really took it and ran with it,” Barber said. She has always been a vocal leader and that’s a good position to have it. That’s a big part of my game. I want them to communicate and that was slow at the start but she gained confidence in herself and that made a difference.”
That kind of communication helped fuel the rest of the team but Smith was not the only one helping with it. Maggie McDaniel recorded only two hits at the varsity level but her impact was felt off the field more than anywhere else.
“I cannot say enough good words about Maggie,” Barber said. “She is one of those that would come early and last to leave. The type of kid that every coach loves to have. She always knew her role and she knows she’s just as important to us as anyone else. That’s something I wish all the kids would have. Everyone respected her.”
Lexi Russo was in the same boat as McDaniel, getting only nine plate appearances during two seasons with the varsity team. However, that did not stop her from becoming a leader.
“As a junior, she didn’t get to play as much as she would like,” Barber said. “When she came to try out her senior year, I was impressed because she really stuck with it and improved. She stepped into that leadership role off the field. She knows she may have people in front of her but she was always working just as hard.”