As a four-year player on the Rocky River softball team, senior shortstop Cecelia Atkinson has heard all of the jokes, deflected the whispers of criticism and persevered as not many people noticed the progression the Ravens were making on the field. But this year, she and her teammates have transformed into the suddenly upstart Ravens, and together they’re getting the last laugh.
Atkinson and her teammates watched mercifully for Rocky River’s first three seasons of existence as they struggled to string hits together, score runs and, in most games, make it the full seven innings before the 10-run rule kicked in. With losses piling up, the Ravens finished in the cellar of the Southwestern 4A each season while failing to win a conference game their first three years as a program.
But through it all, they were quietly getting better and becoming more of a cohesive team. This season, with experience under their belts and a crop of talented freshmen, Rocky River is in the midst of its best season ever and laying the foundation of what’s likely to come in the near future.
The Ravens (6-8 overall, 6-4 in league play) are currently tied for third in the conference with a chance to earn their first playoff berth – the most telling sign that they’ve arrived.
“I have friends that play for other teams and it used to be when they heard they were playing us, they thought it was a joke and an easy win – just come here, beat us and they were gone,” Atkinson said. “They aren’t overlooking us anymore. Now when they hear they’re playing us, they have to be ready because it’s not going to be a quick game anymore and we’re showing them we can win these games.”
The Ravens have won more games this season than they had in the first three years combined. Despite starting just 2-6, Rocky River has won four of its past six games and players are gaining momentum and self-assurance each time they step on the field.
“It’s all about our confidence,” freshman catcher Cailyn Duncan said. “We’ve gained a lot of confidence over the course of the season. You used to never hear anything about Rocky River softball, but now you do. We’ve changed that.”
The sureness that exudes from this year’s Ravens is refreshing to first-year coach Orene Dixon, who has witnessed first-hand the struggles after serving as an assistant the past three seasons.
“I’d say the biggest difference is them coming together, playing as a team and leaving whatever isn’t softball outside of the fence and coming out here and playing softball,” Dixon said. “I think our girls didn’t have enough confidence and they were scared in the past. They’re used to thinking that Butler and Independence and these teams had these great teams and thinking they couldn’t beat them.
“I told them, ‘Right now we have the confidence to beat anyone.’ And they’ve said it themselves and know we have the ability, we have girls that can really play softball. In years past we had girls who played church-league ball or played pick-up softball, but we have as much talent as anyone does and it’s all coming together.”
Case in point came earlier this season as the Ravens were defeated by Myers Park, 11-1, and lost to Butler, 19-3, in mid March. When the teams met later in the season, the results were vastly different as Rocky River earned a 9-6 win over the Mustangs and got their signature win so far with a 5-4 victory over the Bulldogs.
“The confidence gets into our team’s head and makes us better players,” freshman pitcher Tatum Brummitt said. “Even though teams may have a higher skill level at times, we know now that we can beat them with the confidence that we’ve built up.
“I think we’re capable of beating the rest of the teams that we play. At the beginning of the season we were a little rusty, but as we got further into the season we’ve been practicing better and have felt a bond with each other.”
Dixon said the team has rallied behind the addition of a talented group of freshmen and the benefit of a few key veterans who have progressed by working hard and from having another year in the program.
The veterans include Atkinson and outfielders Sarah Dunning and Zakoria Jones, and they’ve mixed seamlessly with the freshmen, which include Brummitt, a talented lefty who has started every game in the pitcher’s circle this season. Her sister, Chloe, began the season at catcher, but since moved to third base where she’s prospered into a steady defender and a clutch hitter. The move allowed Duncan to take over the catcher’s spot, a position switch that spurred the Ravens’ recent success and sparked a friendship and bond from former rivals.
Tatum Brummitt played travel ball for Indian Trail’s Curve while Dixon was a key contributor for the Carolina Riptide. The two knew each other, but always from opposing dugouts.
“We used to be big rivals because we played on opposite teams,” Tatum Brummitt said. “This year getting to know Cailyn has been great – we both think the same when it comes to pitching and catching. We know that we have to know each other’s moves and we have a great connection.”
“That was kind of the turning point,” Dixon added about moving Duncan behind the plate. “Cailyn and Tatum are a very good team. Once we switched it, it was like we were a different team. Chloe has done well at third and Cailyn is quick and agile behind the plate.
“Everyone is doing their jobs. Sarah is doing great in right field right now but has played all over and done well for us. Cecelia is working hard and is a four-year player with lots of experience and Zakoria has been on the team for two years now and is another one that will do anything that you ask of her.”
With the camaraderie showing in the dugout, the results of their hard work showing up in the win column and their collective confidence soaring, the Ravens think this is just the beginning.
With two regular season games remaining – including a game against league leader Porter Ridge scheduled for Friday, May 2 – the Ravens have a chance to finish the regular season at .500. If they win either of their two games, they’ll likely make the state playoffs for the first time, something that makes Atkinson proud of the Ravens’ progression.
“I definitely hope we make it to the playoffs,” she said. “I feel like after this year people are going to look at us a lot differently. In the beginning, nobody really came to our games and now they’re hearing that we’re winning and people are showing up saying, ‘We didn’t know about Rocky River softball.’ People are starting to pay attention to us now and it’s a great thing, but I think this is just the start.”