Members of the Cape Fear Christian Academy softball team weigh in following a payback victory on Monday that continued its unbeaten streak to begin the season.
ERWIN — The unceremonious ending to the 2021 softball season is still a fresh memory for Claire Parker.
A 4-0 shutout loss to Halifax Academy last May foiled plans for another North Carolina Independent School Athletic Association state championship for Parker and her Cape Fear Christian Academy teammates.
As the familiar foe exited Erwin without a run Monday, the Lady Eagles senior ace couldn't help but relish the moment and what it meant for their most recent title run.
"We lost to them (Halifax) four times last year, so to be able to finally come back and beat them this year – it's just been really exciting," Parker said after notching her second complete-game shutout of the year in an 8-0 victory.
The reigning NCISAA Sandhills Athletic Conference Player of the Year helped CFCA to an 11-4-1 overall record, sprinting through the league without a loss. Parker led the team in every major pitching category, posting a 5-2 mark, a 1.73 ERA with 67 strikes.
She's totaled 11 punchouts through 12 innings, helping this year's Lady Eagles to a 4-0 start.
"We're hoping to be conference champions ... and we really want to win a state championship," Parker said. "And I just want to do my part to contribute all that I can."
CFCA coach Sterling Holmes made his second trip to the state tournament after claiming top honors in 2019. Seeing his group denied a second title in three years was plenty of motivation heading into its toughest contest of the 2022 slate.
"We felt like Halifax was gonna be the big test after playing them last year and the heartbreaking loss at the end," Holmes said.
"But we were ready. We were looking forward to this game ... and they're (his players) strong, very strong."
Assisting Parker from behind the plate has been junior catcher Cailee Ray, who assumed the new starting gig after manning the infield as a sophomore. Holmes says Ray's instincts – quick feet, reaction time for bunts and foul balls – have been just as key for a loaded defense at all positions.
Meanwhile, Ray has thrived offensively in the leadoff spot the past two seasons. She finished with a .471 batting average and was second on the team in extra-base hits and on-base percentage.
Through three games this year, she already led the group with a stout 11-for-12 showing at the plate while notching nine extra-base hits.
"I just was in the facility nonstop, working on my swing, making sure it was almost perfect or as best as I could get it," Ray said of her offseason routine.
"I'm just getting my hands to the ball a lot quicker and not dropping my hands as much as I did last year."
The fine-tuned swing was on display during the fifth inning Monday when Ray connected on a first-pitch homer that sparked a five-run frame.
As a group, CFCA has six players sporting above-.400 hitting averages and has collected over 40 runs.
Holmes credits the dominating stretch to a collective swagger that he hopes extends deep into May.
"The biggest thing that I've noticed is our confidence level," he said. "We come out on the field, we look around and we're like, 'We got this.' ... The girls are supporting each other 110% and it shows. They just come out and they do what they do and it looks really good.
The Lady Eagles are back in action Saturday, playing three games as part of the Halifax First Pitch Tournament.
Donnell Coley can be reached at email@example.com or 910-230-2040.