Independence softball has taken a dramatic turn in each of the past two seasons. A team which once struggled to remain around .500 in the Southwestern 4A, the Patriots have turned themselves into the two-time defending conference champions and the toast of the league.
The Patriots figured they’d again be among the conference’s top teams this season, but got out of the gates slowly, dropping the first game of the year and starting just 2-4.
But some of the early struggles were understandable. The Patriots had to replace Jen Birch, who led the team with 31 RBIs and hit .383 last year, and Morgan Benson, who was second with 26 RBIs, hit .397 and logged 70 percent of the innings on the mound a season ago.
“I think it took a little while,” second-year coach Amanda Larry said. “We lost Jen and Morgan from last year and it left major holes in our lineup and just trying to figure out who fit where and who could step up and fill those shoes. It took us a little bit, but I think they’re clicking better.
“I think we’re playing together as a team. We have better communication in the field, but I think the biggest difference is our bats – we finally are stringing together some hits.”
The Patriots have certainly strung some hits together of late, compiling 10 or more hits in three of their past five games. Independence is riding a six-game win streak through April 7 – a streak they extended with a 22-3 hammering of East Meck on April 4. The Patriots racked up 16 hits in that win (including six for extra bases), set their season high for runs in a game and improved their record to 8-4.
“Our communication has changed,” said junior shortstop Lizzy Birch. “We talk a lot amongst ourselves and that’s helped us to gel more and our bats have come on as the season has worn on.”
Birch, the reigning Matthews-Mint Hill Weekly Player of the Year and a Charlotte 49er commit, has been right at the center of it all, even if she’s not hitting the gaudy .646 batting average she posted as a sophomore. She hit safely in every game that season and carried a 19-game hit streak throughout the year.
Birch has had to take on more of the vocal leadership role this season and has still thrived at the plate, hitting safely in 10 of 12 games, culminating in a .469 batting average through 12 games. She has scored 20 runs, driven in eight runs and belted six doubles from the leadoff spot.
But to Larry, it’s Birch’s attitude and daily approach that may be even more valuable than her sweet swing and nifty glove work that’s made her one of the state’s best players.
“Lizzy is absolutely phenomenal,” Larry said. “She’s taking on a different role at short this year, but she’s doing a good job. She’s doing a good job with (freshman) Sarah Smith who’s taking over (at second base) for her.
“Lizzy is definitely the voice of the team – she’s very vocal and very skilled. She has the confidence, but she’s still a very coachable player and she’s doing everything she can, be it up to bat or in the field, to help the team. She hasn’t let off the gas whatsoever, and for the amount of skill she possesses, she’s a very humble player.”
Birch’s demeanor has helped the double-play tandem she makes with Smith flourish, which is another key component to the Patriot in-season revival.
Aside from Birch’s outstanding play, the Independence pitching staff has had a big hand in the turnaround. The entire Patriots staff had logged just 30 combined innings on the varsity level coming into the season after Lauren Raker made nine appearances and posted a 4-1 record last year. Now she teams with her sister, Logan, to form a one-two punch that’s also brought added
The Rakers were forcing the issue a little during the early-season struggles, Larry said, unsure if the defense was going to back them up and make the plays in the field behind them. With an increased confidence in the improved Patriot defense and the maturation of four freshman and three sophomores who are playing bigger roles this year, the pitchers have relaxed and the results have followed.
“Our pitchers know they can throw it around the plate and have confidence we’ll make the plays behind them versus going up there and trying to strike everybody out,” Larry said. “We’re going game by game with Logan and Lauren, whoever’s warming up better or whichever one our catchers feel most comfortable with that day. They both have different styles, which is nice because we can start each of them or split games up with them. I wasn’t too sure because Lauren didn’t throw much and Logan didn’t throw at all, so it’s nice to have that mix up.”
The Patriots have surrendered just 26 runs while putting 85 on the board themselves during their six-game win streak. Logan Raker is 3-1 with a 5.37 ERA in eight games through 28.1 innings and Lauren Raker is 4-3 with a 3.92 ERA and 29 strikeouts in 39.1 innings. Freshman Leah Renn is 1-0 with a 2.80 ERA in a pair of appearances.
With the pitching improved, the rotation settled and the defense playing better, the hitting has fallen in line, too, making the Patriots a complete team.
Renn began the season on JV to get some time on the mound, but once Larry called her up to help in the outfield, a position Renn hadn’t played much before, she’s thrived in the fifth spot in the lineup.
“Leah is hitting the ball very well, she’s well over .400 right now,” Larry said. “She’s getting a couple doubles but is raking in the RBIs for us, which is huge.”
Renn leads the Patriots with a .483 batting average and is tied for second on the team with 13 RBIs through 12 games. Logan Raker leads the Patriots with 17 RBIs and is batting .463 with eight doubles and a triple. Lauren Raker is tied for second with 13 RBIs and is hitting .462 with seven doubles.
While, along with Birch, the Rakers and Renn are the core of the Patriots and all hit above .460, plenty of other players have made major contributions. Maddie Comer (.316, eight RBIs), Mikaela Smith (.297, 10 RBIs, five doubles) and Hailey Sebastian (.263) have all hit well and Sarah Smith has anchored second base defensively and has had some big hits, as well.
With the Patriots clicking in all phases of the game, they’re excited to continue their momentum much like last season when they started 2-3 before reeling off 12 consecutive wins.
“There are some things that we can work on and there are always areas that you can improve on, but I still think we’re pretty solid for right now,” Logan Raker said.
The Patriots have lost only one conference game – to current frontrunner Porter Ridge, who Independence was scheduled to play on April 8 after Matthews-Mint Hill Weekly went to press.
Despite how that game turns out, the Patriots have made themselves again into a conference champion contender and a team that could be dangerous in the playoffs.
“We cannot let up the rest of the season if we want that conference title,” Larry said. “We’re playing much better as a team, we’re hitting it better and if we can limit the errors and string some hits together, we will be in the hunt.”