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June 14, 2014

THE TIMES’ 2014 ALL-AREA SOFTBALL TEAM: Holly Pond’s Holcombe heads up honorary squad as Player of the Year

CULLMAN — There isn’t much more Steve Miller can say about Montana Holcombe and her time with the Holly Pond softball program.

Amazing. Special. Talented. Unique. All those words — and then some — come to mind for the Bronco coach when he’s asked to find something fresh to disclose about his recent Green and White graduate.

With Holcombe’s list of accolades — and Miller’s complimentary vocabulary — seemingly unending, it makes naming the ace The Times’ 2014 Player of the Year a no-brainer.

“Softball in our county has come a long with in the last five years,” Miller said. “For her to be the All-Area Player of the Year is a big deal and a special award considering the players that are in our county right now.”

To say Holcombe was terrific this past season would shame the very word back into its bed.

She compiled a 29-11 record during her senior campaign for the Broncos, striking out 334 batters in 246 innings. Combine that with a 0.85 earned run average and 0.21 WHIP, and it’s obvious why Miller isn’t looking forward to finding a replacement in the pitcher’s circle.

Oh, and don’t forget, the UAH signee also tallied 15 shutouts, two no-hitters and one perfect game during her sendoff.

The one thing that amazed Miller since Holcombe rose up the ranks as a seventh-grader was her consistency throughout each and every game, tournament and season.

“It’s not that she was good starting this year,” he said. “She was good when she started in the seventh grade and just worked extremely hard to improve every year. And I really think she played her best softball as a senior.”

Whether the 2013 North-South All-Star will be remembered more for her five-RBI, 17-K one-hitter on Opening Day or for an electric 46 strikeouts over four North Regional Tourney bouts, Holcombe can head to UAH knowing one without-a-doubt guarantee — Miller sure is going to miss her.

“I hate to see her go,” the coach said. “You hate to see those type players leave, but really, you hate to see those type people leave our program as well.”

From the moment Claire Jenkins joined Cullman’s varsity team in 2013, the rising junior has impressed anybody who’s had the pleasure of watching her play.

Just ask her coaches, teammates or the Bearcat nation to tell you what they saw this past season.

Jenkins batted .481 in a leadoff role, smacking seven homers, three triples, 18 doubles and 71 hits to go along with a team-high 55 RBIs. She played tremendous defense in myriad positions, while maintaining her reputation as a selfless teammate.

Jenkins can now add Hitter of the Year to her vastly growing mantle at home.

“She’s constantly working on her game and tweaking the little things,” coach Stephanie Barlow said. “She’s so smart. We’ll have practice, and then she’ll go home and work on it. Her big thing heading into this season was improving her bat speed. That is the great thing about Claire. Not only is she a power hitter, I mean, she can lay down a bunt and beat it out to get on base.”

While most people know about Jenkins’s prowess on the field, they don’t know how close they came to not seeing No. 21 on the diamond for Cullman this spring — or any for that matter.

According to Barlow, the then-freshman wasn’t contemplating playing softball during the coach’s first campaign with the team back in 2013. Jenkins only planned to play travel softball in high school before Barlow pulled her aside at a volleyball match in the fall.

“I had to go ask her to tryout,” she said. “She wasn’t going to. I was like, ‘This is my first year. I think you’d really enjoy it.’ And she came out, and I’m so glad that she did. Can you imagine? She really wasn’t going to play.”

With that decision, Jenkins has already sparked interest from Alabama, Kentucky, Mississippi State and several other colleges.

If there’s one thing Patrick West knows, it’s that Rilee White is one of the best, if not, the best softball players he’s ever coached in his tenure at Cold Springs.

Despite being shockingly left off the Alabama Sports Writers Association’s All-State list, White didn’t miss a beat during her sophomore campaign. She compiled an excellent 19-9 record to go along with 198 strikeouts, a 1.21 ERA, three no-hitters and seven shutouts.

With those numbers, it’s no wonder she took home this year’s All-Area Pitcher of the Year accolade.

Oh, by the way, she also batted .484 with three home runs, 16 doubles, 25 RBIs and 33 runs for Cold Springs (21-12), which saw its quest for a state-tournament bid come up just one win shy with a one-run loss to eventual champion Hale County.

“We don’t have anybody that works even a fraction as hard as she does,” West said. “She puts in a lot of time, she works at her craft to improve, she’s hungry to get better, she wants to win, and it’s paid off for her. Some kids can spend a lot of time doing something, but that doesn’t mean they’re going to be good at it. It’s worked out for her, though.”

West’s efforts with the Lady Eagles were rewarded with a nod as Coach of the Year. After having Hale County “on the ropes,” West said his squad didn’t realize how much of a state contender it really was until Hale County went on to win it all.

Following two straight regional appearances and only one senior departee (Haley Freeman), the Cold Springs coach can’t wait to see his group take the next step.

He’s not the only one who’s seen the program rise from the ashes in the past few seasons, either, as Miller doled out tons of praise for West’s ability to build up his squad from scratch.

“It’s phenomenal, what they’ve done,” the Holly Pond coach said. “Their girls programs have always been strong, but they have got the right kind of dedication and commitment to what they do as a community. For what he has done, it’s been really unique to make the turn that they’ve made in as quick a time as they’ve made it.”

Cold Springs notched the most All-Area first teamers, with Taylor Payne making it at catcher, Freeman in the infield and McKinnley Davis in the outfield.

West Point (Karra Elam, infield and Mallory Walker, utility), Holly Pond (Kolby Holcombe, catcher and Taylor Rowell, outfield), Cullman (Hayden Short, infield and Olivia Schwaiger, pitcher) and Good Hope (Alannah Henke, utility and Bailie Andrews, outfield) each earned two selections. Vinemont (Raven Christiansen, pitcher) had one.

See the complete All-Area Softball Team below:

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