The East Clarendon High School softball program is no stranger to postseason success. The Lady Wolverines won 1A state titles in 2013 and 2017 and played for three more championships since winning that first trophy.
However, East Clarendon has never had an easier time making the playoffs than this season, as it was in before playing its first game.
Region IV-1A has only two schools playing softball this season, as coronavirus concerns wiped out several teams. That meant that East Clarendon had its playoff spot locked up. Two wins against Carvers Bay sewed up a No. 1 seed, but that left a lot of open dates on the schedule for the Lady Wolverines.
Luckily, head coach Andy Baker likes a tough schedule, so he was already planning on playing a heavy out-of-region slate to help prepare East Clarendon for a playoff run.
"I think it helps tremendously," said Baker of playing a schedule littered with 3A, 4A and 5A schools. "I hate to lose, but I would rather lose a close game to a really good school than to beat a weaker team 10 or 12 to nothing.
"It's a big help to see bigger schools, to see what kind of competition is out there and help you get ready for the playoffs. It helps the girls to know that you have to compete at a high level to compete in the playoffs. We've been doing that for years, and it's paid off as we've won a couple of state championships and we've competed for more."
That doesn't mean finding games has always been easy, especially at this point in the season. While many teams across the state are in the heat of region competition, Baker is trying to find games wherever he can. Early-season rainouts have been especially difficult to reschedule at this point in the season.
"We had a lot of other teams scheduled to replace the region dropouts like Andrews, Socastee, Aynor," Baker said. "We've got a lot of good teams scheduled. But it has been a struggle."
East Clarendon has had a lot of success regardless of the tough schedule. The Wolverines sit at 9-3 on the year and Maddie Newsome is a big reason why.
"Maddie Newsome has done really well pitching and hitting," Baker said. "The pitching I was expecting; the hitting is kind of a plus and I'm glad to see it. She's been working really hard to improve her hitting and it's working. She's seeing the ball really well."
Newsome has been the workhorse on the mound. On Monday, she pitched back-to-back no-hitters against Manning, striking out a total of 21 batters in eight innings. That means all but three of her outs were by strikeout.
"She pitched really well last year at the beginning of the season, but we only got a couple of games in before the COVID mess. She struggled with her control a little bit last year, but this year she's done really well," Baker said of Newsome. "She's hitting her spots, she's throwing the ball hard. Her curveball, her screwball, all of her pitches are working really well right now.
"It's a lot easier on a coach when you can rely on a pitcher like that."
Newsome is far from the only reason for EC's success. Hannah Hickman has been dominant at the plate, hitting right around .700 as the Lady Wolverines' cleanup hitter. Young players like Hannah White and Whitney McElveen have been great pieces to go with a senior- and junior-heavy lineup.
White sets the table at the top of the lineup. Baker has enjoyed seeing her progression as a table-setter.
"We've got a freshman doing really well playing second base, Hayden White. We've been working with her on the slap (hit). She's really fast," Baker said. "She's been getting on base a lot the last few games, and that's a big help, getting that leadoff runner on base, and she's fast so she can steal and we can move her along."
The lineup has changed a bit this season, but at the moment, she's followed by Randi Lynn Holcombe, East Clarendon's senior shortstop. After that is the core of the Lady Wolverine lineup with first baseman Ansley Brown, Hickman, Katie Lee and Newsome.
That core group is followed by one of two catchers for East Clarendon. Baker was thrilled to have two players capable of performing consistently well behind the plate and at the dish.
"We've got two catchers kind of sharing time. Katilynn Floyd, this is the first time she has caught in several years, but she's really stepped up and is doing a great job back there and is hitting the ball well," Baker said. "And Whitney McElveen, she caught JV (junior varsity) last year, and she's doing really good. She has the most experience behind the plate, she's just young, but she's doing really well and hitting the ball well too.
"It's a real plus knowing that you have two solid catchers you can put behind the plate at any time."
Overall, Baker likes where his offense is sitting, but you'll never meet a coach that's completely satisfied with everything.
"We're hitting really well," Baker said. "I'd just like to see the team batting average a little better, but overall we've been hitting the ball good."
The Lady Wolverines have also been excellent on the defensive side of the ball. While EC has a number of standouts, Baker thinks he may have the best defensive centerfielder in the state.
"In centerfield, Hope Azurdia, she's doing really well, probably one of the top outfielders in the state, I would say," Baker said. "She's a really good outfielder. She's fast, catches just about everything and has a great arm."
East Clarendon beat Carver's Bay 6-0 in their first matchup this season, before needing just five innings to seal a region title with a 10-0 win. That means the Lady Wolverines can focus solely on preparing for the playoffs. That's Baker's plan as EC finishes off the regular season.
"We just wanna work hard every day and try to get better every day," Baker said. "Try to keep our bats sharp, be patient at the plate and hit strikes. We've always taught them that. We're trying to get ready for the playoffs and making another run at the state championship, I hope."
Expectations are always high at East Clarendon, but Baker thinks he has a team that's more than capable of meeting them.
"I think we're in pretty good shape. We've got girls that have played a lot of ball with three seniors and a lot of juniors, so it's not like we haven't been here before," Baker said. "I think we can make a state championship run if we can stay sharp, keep our bats going and stay focused. I think this group can compete with anyone in 1A."
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