Softball swings back into state playoffs

As the Pirates take on Southern Alamance in the first round tonight, the team has already won more games than the last nine seasons combined. Where did this burst of success come from?

According to MaxPreps, the Pirate softball team went 11-114 from 2014-22. That’s a winning percentage of less than 10%.

This season, however, is a different story. To conclude the regular season the team finished at 13-7 and 7-6 in the conference. The team’s winning percentage is 65%. 

Riverside softball’s win-loss records
*Head coach Cynthia Smith joined the program in 2017-18

Tuesday the team hosted their first conference playoff game since 2012 and defeated Chapel Hill 11-8. 

The Pirates came out flat and let the Tigers pounce ahead early. Down five to one in the bottom third, in the blink of an eye the Pirates scored 5 straight, then added five more in the fourth and fifth to beat the Tigers.

No one understands how this resurrection happened better than head coach Cynthia Smith. 

Smith has been with Riverside’s softball program since 2018. 

“I wanted to take this job because it allows me to build the program from the ground up,” Smith said. “I’ve coached for years.  I am passionate about the sport, as I played in high school and College. I love the opportunity to TEACH the sport to those who want to learn.”

Riverside softball players pose for a photo after defeating NCSSM 31-7 on March 1.
Credit: Pirate Athletics Media

She said many factors made her first few seasons difficult. 

“2018 was the year to build trust with students who want to play softball,” Smith said. “I kept 25 ladies on the team. It was a very large group. The skills ranged from never playing to playing with a recreational league. The challenge was getting them to play as ONE.”

After going 0-13 in her first season, the team went 2-9 in 2019. Then COVID hit, and the Pirates only played one game before the spring season was canceled. The following year, when play resumed in 2021, they went 0-12. 

“Parents were [still] not allowing the children to play sports,” Smith said. “Our turnout was low.”

The team rebounded last year and finished 7-13. 

“We did pretty well,” she said, “[We had] a mix of talent, and more girls participated in softball.”

Smith said offseason workouts were the key to the 2022 team’s improvement. 

“The statistics do not show that we were able to return to our Skilled development/conditioning clinics during the summer,” she said. “It allowed us to work with women and help them develop their talents. Once the season began, we were able to successfully integrate players who had been working hard over the summer and felt at ease. That, I believe, was a significant component in our ability to turn the ship around and avoid failure.”

Senior infielder Janika Bunch has been part of a softball team for the past four years. When she was considering what high school to attend in eighth grade she claimed that the record didn’t matter. She just wanted to play what she loves. 

Senior Janika Bunch (third from left) stands between the coaches and sophomore Grayson Knotts. Bunch has watched the team evolve from winless to among the best in the conference.
Credit: Pirate Athletics Media

“The main reason for the lack of winning was a lot of non-committed athletes at the time,” said Bunch. “But under all of the loss was a great program with great coaches.” 

Bunch said that things began to change last year when players became more invested. 

“We lost a lot of players who just played softball to wear the uniform and take nice pictures,” she said. “Players have gotten more serious over the years. [Now we’re] committed and willing to put in the work…as everyone can see through our games and record.”

An influx of young talent this season helped, too. 

“Believe it or not, half of our brilliant talent is freshmen,” said Bunch. “We’re already doing so well. They’re gonna leave a good mark. 

“We are winning, and winning BIG,” Smith said. “A big difference with this year is that we aren’t just winning, but off the field as well.” 

With six freshmen contributing, many older players had to adjust their roles. 

“The challenge was to merge travel ball players with high school players to become one on the field,” said Smith. “Sometimes, there is a different way of thinking for both, when it comes to unity on the field. The ladies have beat those odds and become one. On and off the field.”

“There’s a lot of talent on the team and sometimes it’s hard to bring it all together with so many personalities,” said Bunch. 

Smith thinks that the program’s in a position to keep winning. 

“I am confident to say that this swing of success is sustainable,” she said. “We are growing in numbers and talent. The players are passionate about the sport, which brings the desire to want to do what it takes to win.”

“Riverside softball has taken a turn for the better!” said Bunch. “It’s just all about how committed you are to the sport and willing to give your 110%.”

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