East Rockingham threatening Page County as rulers of Valley Softball

Perhaps the Shenandoah District has a new team to beat this softball season.

Page County has won two of the last three 2A state championships, but it’s East Rockingham that is the league’s last unbeaten team almost a month into 2017’s season.

“Our goal coming in is we want to win a district title and we’ll see how it goes,” second-year East Rock coach Ronnie Dovel said. “That was our goal coming in. Right now, we’re the only undefeated team left in the district, so we’ve got the target on our back now. We’ll see how that goes.”

The Eagles, one year removed from going 11-10 and being ousted by Page in the Conference 36 tournament semifi-nals, are 7-0 to kick off this season — and one of those wins avenged that elimination loss.

Last Tuesday, East Rock beat the Panthers 6-2 in Shenandoah, although the hosts left the bases loaded in the bottom half of the seventh inning.

“Honestly, we’re pleased to be 7-0, but we got off the hook a couple times, so we’ve got a lot to work on,” Dovel said before ERHS’s practice Monday. “It won’t last much longer if we don’t get some defensive things straightened out, but obviously we’re pleased to be 7-0.”

Offensively, though, the Eagles have flourished.

East Rockingham has scored at least six runs in each game, at least nine runs in five of its games, and reached 10 runs in four contests. The Eagles have slugged 10 home runs already; junior Serenity Bishop leads with four, junior Reagan Ream has three, sophomore Autumn Bailey has two and sophomore Courtney Shifflett has one.

Three of Bishop’s home runs came in a 9-6 win over Spotswood on March 24.

“We put in a lot of work in the offseason, and [we’re] just looking for good pitches to hit,” Ream said. “We’ve gotten better with that. It’s basically come down to hard work.”

Ream was one of three East Rockingham returners who were named to the 2A all-state team a year ago, making the first team as teammates Jaclyn Gooden and Meredith Dean cracked the second team.

ERHS had no seniors on last season’s roster, giving the Eagles plenty of optimism for this spring as they endured what Dovel called “growing pains” last year.

“It’s basically the same team this year, so we just looked forward to this year because we knew we were going to be better than last year,” Bishop said.

The Eagles, who are 3-0 in Shenandoah District action entering Tuesday’s matchup at Stonewall Jackson, have added another pitching option in freshman Samantha Hensley along with Shifflett, who went 10-10 in the circle last year.

Hensley, Dovel said, has been East Rockingham’s “biggest surprise” in 2017 with her composure in the circle through tough situations.

She tossed a complete game for the Eagles last week in the win over Page, with Shifflett adding a home run.

The Panthers are now 5-4 on the season, a year after going 20-5 with a loss to eventual 2A champion Lebanon in the state semifinals that snapped Page’s two-year run as state champion.

“It definitely shows what we’re capable of when we work hard and do our best, and just go out there and have fun,” Ream said of last week’s win over Page County.

“That’s probably the most important thing that we do. It’s not like this is our lives right now; we just go out there, have fun, and what happens happens.”

Dovel said the Eagles’ biggest weakness is their defense — even with making simple, routine plays.

“We’re still young, so hopefully we’ll keep growing this year as the season goes,” he said.

Dovel, who was a five-year East Rock assistant before taking over the helm, leads a program that reached the state tournament in 2011-13 — the school’s first three years of existence — but hasn’t been back since.

“Honestly, I think we’ve got the best hitting team we’ve ever had here,” Dovel said. “But defensively, we’re not even close, so we’ve got a lot of work to do on the defensive side. If we can get that together, we’ll see how it goes.”

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