By Dan Stillwell
Register-Herald Sports Writer
Choosing the area’s best softball player from five outstanding nominees wasn’t easy.
Victoria Krystynak from Greenbrier East, Kaitlyn Sisler from Fayetteville and Westside’s Cassie Blankenship had fine pitching stats and weren’t exactly slouches at the plate.
James Monroe third baseman Laine Shiflett and Valley catcher Kelsey Bird both tore the cover off the ball and played excellent defense.
But only one of the five led her team to the state tournament.
Blankenship, a junior right-hander, shrugged off two previous losses to James Monroe to fire a four-hitter and prevail 1-0 in the Class AA Region 3 final.
That clutch win, coupled with her banner year in the circle for the Lady Renegades, earns her The Register-Herald’s inaugural Softball Player of the Year award.
“Pitching is a nerve-wracking position, but I love it,” Blankenship said. “I like being under pressure. I do better.”
Blessed with a great riseball and a full arsenal of other pitches, she compiled a 15-2 mark with a 2.01 earned run average going into the state tournament. She struck out 137 batters.
“It’s an honor that’s well deserved,” Westside coach Sarah Patrick said. “She works hard and is dedicated to pitching.”
Blankenship finished with 23 points in voting by The Register-Herald’s sports department. She received the first-place vote on four of five ballots.
Krystynak was second with 19 points, while Shiflett came in third with 17.
Blankenship pitched in all but three games for Westside (18-4). James Monroe had beaten her 6-2 in the 2013 Region 3 final, and had put a 10-2 shellacking on her April 11 of this season.
She put those losses behind her and fired a shutout, holding the Lady Mavs and their five .400-plus batters without a hit until the sixth inning. She finished with nine strikeouts.
“We had faith in ourselves,” she said. “They’re a good team and we’re a good team. We had to win. Nobody from Wyoming County had ever been to states.
“Everybody worked together, and we backed each other up. We looked like a really good softball team.”
Westside went on to play well in the state tournament in Vienna, leading tournament co-favorite Ritchie County 1-0 going into the sixth inning, only to lose 3-1.
It was much the same in the elimination game. The Lady Renegades went up 2-0 on Petersburg in the first inning, but surrendered four runs in the sixth and lost 4-2.
“I was really nervous,” Blankenship said. “I pitched good, and I was pleased with how we did there. Nobody thought we would do much.”
Patrick liked the leadership Blankenship gave the team.
“The kids looked up to Cassie, and she tried to keep them focused when we’d get down,” the 28-year coaching veteran said. “She always cheered on her teammates, telling them they’d do fine.”
Patrick thinks Blankenship will pitch even better next season.
“She’ll work on more of her pitches. I don’t think she can improve too much on her riseball,” she said. “She strikes people out.”
Blankenship, who does not play any other sports at Westside, batted .350 with 15 runs batted in. She thinks she can improve on her hitting.
“I had a grand slam three weeks ago in travel ball. It’s the first time I’ve had one,” she said. “I’m going to work to hit better over the winter.”
She’s already looking forward to next season.
“We only lost a couple of girls (to graduation) and we have some good ones coming up,” Blankenship said. “I’m going to work even harder in the fall and over the winter so we can get back to states next year. We can do it.”
— E-mail: email@example.com