Jessica Simmons delivered and the batter swung and missed. Bedlam erupted on the field and the girls on the bench sprinted onto the field to join the celebration, their feet barely touching the ground.
In the corner of the Radford University dugout, John Shotwell just smiled and put a “K” in his scorebook for the final time. His days of jumping around had ended years ago.
Shotwell, who devoted 50 years of his life to coaching young people, went out with a state championship when his James River girls defeated Virginia High, 2-1, in the Group A, Division 2 championship game Saturday morning. It was his fourth state championship and his last, as he announced prior to the season that this would be his swan song. What a way to go!
“You couldn’t have dreamed up a better ending than this if you were writing a book,” said Shotwell. “I told the kids before the year that we were going to win the state championship and they just looked at me. I reminded Haley of that before the game, and she just smiled.”
Haley is Shotwell’s granddaughter, senior Haley Shotwell. John’s son, Andy, is an assistant coach for the team and Andy’s younger daughter, Lindsay, is a freshman reserve on the team. The team played home games on John Shotwell Field in Buchanan, so you can see this was more than a hobby to the Shotwell family.
“This is really unbelievable, beyond my wildest dreams,” said Andy, who coaches third base and calls pitches for the Knights. “To win the state championship with my oldest daughter on the field and my dad and younger daughter next to me in the dugout, what more can you ask for?”
The Knights came to Radford as the Region C, Division 2 champions after defeating longtime rival Glenvar, 1-0, in the regional final at the Botetourt Sports Complex. That gave River a home game in the state quarterfinal, and the Knights beat Coeburn on Tuesday, 5-1, as Simmons scattered 10 hits.
The game was tied 1-1 into the bottom of the fifth when River put a crooked three on the board. Jenna Sprinkle knocked in two with a bases-loaded hit and Hannah Morrow’s RBI ground out made it 4-1. That’s all Simmons would need.
That put the Knights in Friday’s state semifinal against Nandua at Veterans Field in Radford, home field for the Radford High School team. The Knights pounded out nine hits and took advantage of six Nandua errors for a 13-1 win.
Actually, the game was much closer than the final score indicates. River scored two runs in the third and Nandua got one back in the top of the fifth to make it 2-1 at that point. However, Taylor Statome’s home run off the top of the fence highlighted a three-run bottom of the fifth to give the Knights some breathing room at 5-1.
“The ball was inside and I got a good turn on it,” said Statome, who was River’s top hitter down the stretch.
Nandua totally collapsed in the bottom of the sixth, as River scored eight more runs with help of some shoddy fielding by the Warriors. Shotwell let freshman Abby Tincher pitch the seventh. She’s the younger sister of Angela Tincher, who led the Knights to two state championships before moving on to national fame at Virginia Tech.
In the other semifinal, Virginia High of Bristol defeated Mathews, 4-0, to set the scene for the state championship. That was scheduled for 10 a.m. Saturday at the Radford University varsity field, and a large delegation from Botetourt County was on hand on a beautiful sunny day. All that was needed was one more win to send Shotwell out in style, but it wouldn’t come easy.
River struck first in the championship as Statome hit a bomb in the third inning. While her home run in the semifinal hit the top of the fence and bounced over, this one soared over the fence to the right of the left field scoreboard.
“It was a low fastball and that’s my favorite pitch,” said Statome. “I have a habit of swinging at the first pitch and when I hit it I felt like it was gone.”
Statome had never homered prior to this year, and she had just two this season before the state, both against Craig County. It’s fitting that her final home run would be at RU.
“I’m going to Radford University next year and I’m thinking about trying out for the softball team,” she said. “It was exciting to hit one in the championship game. I like finishing strong.”
That homer was the only run of the game through five innings, as River’s solid defense denied the Bearcats at every turn. Right fielder Morrow made a sensational running catch in the second inning on a ball that was straight over her head. First baseman Haley Shotwell and third baseman Connor Sprinkle made picks on a couple shots at their respective corners, and catcher Hope Falls made a diving grab of a pop foul behind the plate.
“Those were four great defensive plays,” said Shotwell. “We played great defense all year. That’s what it takes to win a state championship.”
The Knights put a second run on the board in the top of sixth. Statome opened the inning with a walk, and after Casie Hill popped up, Jenna Sprinkle drew a walk to put runners on first and second. Morrow followed with a ground ball to second. The Bearcat second baseman tagged Sprinkle, but threw low to first and an alert Statome came around to score on the play.
That run proved big when Virginia scored a two-out run in the bottom of the sixth, but Simmons got out of the inning without further damage. She then put the Bearcats down one, two, three in the seventh and the celebration was on.
“I came to the first championship to watch when I was little and we wanted this so bad,” said senior Haley Shotwell after giving hugs all around. “When we got up 2-0, I felt like we were going to win, but I didn’t want to count the chickens before they hatched. We all have a lot of confidence in Jessica.”
Simmons finished the season with a 14-2 record. Just a sophomore, she split time on the mound with Haley Shotwell for most of the season, but Simmons was the horse the Knights rode in the playoffs.
“She improved a lot this season,” said John Shotwell. “What makes her a good pitcher is that she never throws the ball the same speed two times in a row. And Andy called a great game. He’s one of the best assistants you could ever have. He even kept me calm down the stretch.”
Andy Shotwell coached most of these girls at one time or another during recreation and travel softball. Many of the girls have played together since they were 9 years old.
“I remember watching them when they were 9 and thinking these girls might win me a state championship some day,” said Shotwell.
On Saturday it all came to be, and Shotwell went out holding the state trophy. At 73, he’s had enough.
“I still enjoy the games, but at night when I go home after practice I’m just too tired,” he said. “I’ve had enough. It’s time to turn it over to someone else.”
That person would be Kasey Austin, who was announced as the new coach. Austin played for Shotwell and he feels she’ll do an exceptional job. John also hopes E.D. Schechterly, who also applied for the position, will stay on.
“E.D. has done a fantastic job as assistant coach,” said Shotwell. “He’s been with me for 18 years and he’s been a big part of the program.”
Andy Shotwell would also like to return, “if the new coach will have me,” and don’t expect John Shotwell to ride into the sunset, never to be seen again. He has too much red and black in his veins to stay away completely after 20 years, 372 wins, and four state championships with the James River softball team. And who could keep him away from John Shotwell Field?
“I told Kasey that I’ll be over to help if she needs me,” said Shotwell. “I don’t want to interfere, but I’d love to help if they need me.”
And what better help could you have?