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June 5, 2014

ALL-STATE SOFTBALL: Holly Pond’s Holcombe, Cullman’s Jenkins earn 1st-team nods

CULLMAN — One is a grizzled vet. The other is a rising star. And both are deserving of the All-State accolades bestowed upon them when the Alabama Sports Writers Association released its honorary softball squad late Thursday night.

Holly Pond’s Montana Holcombe and Cullman’s Claire Jenkins were rewarded for exceptional seasons with matching first-team selections. Holcombe, a senior, pulled off the feat at pitcher in 3A, while Jenkins, a sophomore, was deemed one of 5A’s top outfielders.

Good Hope seniors Alannah Henke (designated hitter) and Bailie Andrews (outfield) rounded out the local representation as honorable mentions in 3A.

Aside from several self-admitted time-wasters, Holly Pond coach Steve Miller only called timeout twice in order to talk to Holcombe in the pitcher’s circle. Once was during her first game as an up-and-coming eighth-grader. The other came before the last batter she ever faced in high school.

Miller took advantage of the latter experience to tell Holcombe how much he, the program and the community appreciated her contributions throughout an illustrious five-year prep career.

With more than two decades of coaching experience under his belt, Miller obviously knows how to handle his business on the diamond. So why, oh why, did he choose to leave Holcombe alone so long, even during the rare times the teen appeared to be struggling?

“There’s nobody that knows more about what she’s doing than she does, and she’ll fix it,” Miller said. “There’s nothing I can say to her that’s going to help that.”

Holcombe’s pitching numbers were on par with her prior brilliance as a Lady Bronco, which resulted in a first-team pick in 2011. The UAH signee was 29-11 with a save in her senior sendoff, overpowering batters for 334 strikeouts and a razor-thin 0.85 earned run average and 0.21 WHIP. Her superb stat-line was capped off by 15 shutouts, two no-hitters and a perfect game in 246 innings.

Holcombe went out tossing her very best stuff. The 2013 North-South All-Star earned the win in a pair of nine-inning, 1-0 marathons at the North Regional Tournament and struck out 46 batters in four games. Holly Pond, which was ranked third almost all season, emerged from an extremely competitive schedule with a 30-13 record.

“That’s just a freaky number on any level,” Miller said of the K’s Holcombe accumulated at regionals. “But on that level, that’s crazy because the four teams we played were four of the best teams in the state.”

Holcombe’s emergence as a power threat set her apart this spring. She entered the season without a home run and closed her career with four. The first was blasted on an unreal Opening Day that included two hits and five RBIs with her bat, as well as a 17-strikeout one-hitter with her arm.

Miller pointed to Holcombe’s unmatched work ethic and renewed commitment to strength and conditioning for the superstar’s dominant exit. Above all, he firmly believes she has a good head on her shoulders and a team-first attitude.

“Montana is the best player I have coached in my 24-year career,” Miller said. “She’s just a unique talent No. 1 and then a special human being on the other side.”

Jenkins burst onto the varsity scene in 2013 and successfully avoided even the slightest sign of a sophomore slump in her second go-round with Cullman.

The free swinger was a force at the plate but truly made her mark as a selfless defender ready and able to play wherever coach Stephanie Barlow needed. Over the course of the campaign, Jenkins happily helped out as an outfielder, pitcher, shortstop and even suited up behind the plate for an area tourney game when regular starter Elli Dixon went down.

“Claire really can do anything,” Barlow said. “She will step up in any situation that we ask, and she’ll go after it. She’s the kid you want up when the game’s on the line.”

A quick look at Jenkins’s offensive statistics would make most assume the slugger bats in the middle of the lineup. But she was actually the Black and Gold’s leadoff hitter — and a beastly one at that.

From that top spot, Jenkins cranked out seven home runs, 55 RBIs, 18 double, three triples, 74 total hits and a staggering .481 batting average. She started rallies, stole bases and proved to be just as capable of laying down a bunt as crushing a longball.

“If we get her on, then we know we’re going to have a good inning,” Barlow said.

The Lady Bearcats had their fair share of good innings this spring, and, as their coach indicated, Jenkins was often a big reason why.

The whiz kid walloped four home runs and drove in double-digit runs at the Oneonta Invitational alone. Just for good measure, she tossed two of Cullman’s six wins en route to the tournament title.

Jenkins sent a shot over the fence against East Limestone in an area tourney triumph that allowed the Lady Bearcats to advance to regionals. There, she belted out five hits and two RBIs in a pair of extremely close contests.

Cullman, which was ranked for a solid stretch following a mid-season streak that topped out at 10 wins, finished 30-19.

Jenkins is on more than just the ASWA’s radar, too. The up-and-comer is already drawing SEC interest from Alabama, Kentucky and Mississippi State ... as a sophomore.

“How crazy is that?” Barlow said. “She’s going to get better and bigger and stronger over the next two years. She’s going to make a big impact, not only here, but in college.

“She’s so passionate, and she’s very competitive. I can see her confidence growing more and more every year. We’re excited about the future.”

Henke, who had a huge hand in Good Hope’s recent run of state appearances, was as good as gold in her farewell tour.

Even without the usual cast of superstars around Henke, the reliable lefty still made opposing pitchers pay, batting .509 and racking up three home runs, four triples, 14 doubles, 36 RBIs and 10 stolen bases.

Henke, a first-teamer in 2012 and honorable mention in 2011 and 2013, struck out just four times and moved from her primary position at first base to fill a void at catcher and pitch on an as-needed basis. The Southern Union signee wrapped up her prep career in the top 20 of the state’s record books in doubles, hits and RBIs.

Andrews, another Lady Raider around for the program’s spree of state tourney berths, aided Good Hope’s journey to regionals as a steady outfielder and hitter.

The senior dipped down to a .384 batting average late but closed on a tear to finish with a .404 clip. She scored a team-high 33 runs and was second on the squad in doubles (13), triples (two), home runs (one) and RBIs (17).

The most notable All-State exclusion was Cold Springs’ Rilee White.

The Wallace State commit was sensational in her sophomore campaign, batting .484 with three home runs, 16 doubles, 25 RBIs and 33 runs. White was equally outstanding on the rubber, where she went 19-9 with 198 strikeouts and a 1.21 ERA. She slung three no-hitters and seven shutouts.

Cold Springs (21-12) was a 2-1 loss to eventual 2A state champion Hale County away from reaching the state tourney.

See the entire 2014 All-State Softball Team below:

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