But since joining the 3-A Patriot Athletic Conference in 2018, the Colts have had a new rival nipping at their heels, Gray’s Creek.
In that first season together, the only losses Gray’s Creek suffered in conference play were to the Colts. Last season, the teams split their regular-season meetings and shared the regular-season conference championship.
But with Cape Fear losing 16 seniors over the past two years and Gray’s Creek returning some key veteran players, the Bears appear ready to contest the Colts’ string of league titles this spring.Here’s a closer look at both teams:
Colt coach Jeff McPhail said his team is in a rebuilding mode after so many graduation losses over the last two seasons. “It’s going to be a learning experience for us this year,’’ he said. “The graduating thing caught up with us. We’re all eager to see what we can do this year with these young kids.’’
Toni Blackwell is the most experienced Cape Fear pitcher returning. She was 3-0 last season with a 2.33 earned run average, striking out 38 batters in 21 innings.
McPhail expects the leader of the pitching staff to be freshman Alexza Glemaker. “She’s been doing a good job throughout the fall and winter,’’ McPhail said of Glemaker, who transferred to Cape Fear from the South View district.
The infield will also be dominated by youth, with freshmen scheduled to start at nearly every position.
One of the most experienced players on the team is outfielder Morgan Nunnery, who has been with the Colts four years. She was around as a freshman the last time Cape Fear made the finals of the North Carolina High School Athletic Association softball playoffs.
“She keeps everything together,’’ McPhail said of Nunnery. “She’s done a really good job in the classroom and the softball program.’’
Nunnery, a slap hitter, batted a whopping .671 last season for Cape Fear. She led Cumberland County Schools with 55 hits, including nine doubles and one home run. She scored a county-best 49 runs and drove in 31.
Nunnery said the rich tradition of softball at Cape Fear helps push each year’s players to do their best. “We’ve always been pretty big competitors in our conference,’’ she said. “We are here to represent. You have to play to the standard of Cape Fear softball.
“It means a lot to wear the jersey, having the community behind you.’’
With all the youth on this year’s team, Nunnery said it will be important to develop chemistry early and get to know each other.
McPhail agrees. “For us to be competitive, we’ve got to know each other,’’ he said.
With a veteran lineup returning, Bears’ head coach Stuart Gilmer hopes his team will be able to compete head-to-head with Cape Fear again this season.
Heading the returners for the Bears is one of the best players in the county, Patriot Athletic Conference Player of the Year Jaden Pone.
Pone led all hitters from Cumberland County Schools last season with a .700 batting average. She had seven doubles, six triples and six home runs while driving in a county-best 45 runs.
Also back are Kylie Aldridge who hit .583, Morgan Brady who hit .489, Courtney Cygan who hit .446 and Becca Collins who batted .385. Collins, who plays first base, is the younger sister of former South View star Whitney Sirois Maxwell.
Returning to lead the pitching corps is Madi Bagley, who was 6-2 last season with a 1.03 earned run average. She threw 54 innings and recorded 57 strikeouts.
“Madi has a good fastball and likes to mix in some movement and a changeup now and then,’’ Gilmer said. “She does a good job of hitting
Gilmer thinks offense is going to be critical for Gray’s Creek to win this season. “Hopefully, our bats can get us in positions early in games where we can get up and help us relax on defense,’’ he said. “We’ve got to be defensively sound. I tell them at practice every day, little things make big things happen. If we take care of little things defensively, big things could happen for us.’’
While the Bears have experience on the field, there are only three seniors on the roster. One of them is Collins at first base.
She thinks the team comes into the 2020 season with a positive attitude and a strong bond as teammates.
Her top goal personally is to improve her reaction to different game situations. “They don’t always go as planned,’’ she said. “How we react to them sets the tone for the next play.’’
While Cape Fear may be the team to beat for conference honors, Collins plans to respect every opponent on the schedule. “We need to think everyone is going to give us a run for our money,’’ she said.
Gilmer is expecting plenty of competition from the traditional powers in the conference. “Cape Fear, South View, Pine Forest and Overhills should all give us a run for our money,’’ he said.