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BEST IN TOWN: 2020 All-Covington News Softball Team
The Covington News staff proudly presents the 2020 All-Covington News Softball Team. Pictured (L-R): Natalie Ray, Hayden Pearson, Virginia Tucker Smith, Dezaria Johnson. - Mason Wittner | The Covington News

COVINGTON, Ga. — It became evident early on that the 2020 prep softball season was never going to be normal.

Less than a month into the campaign, Newton County’s teams were forced to press pause when the school system suspended all athletics and extracurricular activities indefinitely due to COVID-19. For nearly two weeks following the suspension, it appeared as though the clubs might not get another opportunity to return to the diamond.

But the hiatus proved to be short-lived, granting the players and coaches permission to return to the field and continue their respective seasons as previously scheduled.

The result was yet another strong showcase for the student-athletes in our area. Alcovy, Eastside, Newton and Social Circle represented Newton County well by producing memorable softball campaigns. 

The Lady Tigers showed signs of development in a growing year with a roster that featured no seniors. The Lady Eagles adjusted to a higher classification and one of the toughest regions in the state by holding their own. The Lady Rams closed the gap between themselves and Eastside, proving to people that there’s room for more than one powerhouse softball program in the county. The Lady Redskins battled their way to a top-two seed in a new region, earning a trip to the postseason.

In the midst of distractions like student-athletes hadn’t seen in recent memory, Newton County’s softball players rose to the occasion. So, when it came time for The Covington News staff to piece together our all-area team, it wasn’t easy narrowing down selections. But, after in-depth analysis and discussion, we firmly believe the girls who received accolades were the ones most deserving of selection.

Without further ado, it’s an honor to present the 2020 All-Covington News Softball Team.

MVP — Natalie Ray (Eastside)

No player in the area meant more to her team this year than junior outfielder Natalie Ray.

Ray was as consistent as they come at the plate for the Lady Eagles. She posted a .487 batting average with a .566 on-base percentage, totaling 41 hits with nine doubles, seven triples and seven home runs. She was a tough out, but even tougher to take down on strikes as she closed out the year with just three strikeouts in 83 at-bats. She drove in 28 runs for Eastside with her bat, but also created numerous scoring opportunities with her feet by stealing 22 bases.

The Ole Miss commit showcased her speed and agility in the outfield as well, recording a .927 fielding percentage.

“Natalie is one of the most talented players I’ve had the opportunity to coach — that I’ve been fortunate enough to coach — here at Eastside. She’s just an all-around athlete,” head coach Heather Wood said. “She is a player that came in right away as a freshman and made such an impact on our program. This season was no different.”

Shaken up by the stoppage of play early on, Ray took it upon herself to make each outing count. As a junior she knew she’d like get a chance to come back for another season, but she wanted to do everything she could to give the senior class a fitting send-off.

“I played every game like it was the last game because it could’ve been,” Ray said.

A club’s leadoff batter is responsible for setting the tone each game. Ray proved to be the consummate leadoff batter as her outstanding play, coupled with her vocal leadership, constantly made others around her better.

“Her numbers speak volumes and I think it just shows that she is one of the elite players in the country,” Wood said. “It shows by her stats, her work ethic and everything she pours into the game.”

Pitcher of the Year — Hayden Pearson (Newton)

In 2019, Pearson earned Co-Pitcher of the Year honors for a stellar sophomore campaign with the Lady Rams.

What did she have in mind for an encore performance? Utter domination.

The junior right-hander pitched 116 innings for Newton in the fall, striking out 78 batters while allowing just 60 earned runs for a 3.62 ERA. She threw a no-hitter against county rival Alcovy, went toe-to-toe with state powers Parkview and Grayson, and grew as a leader in the dugout as well as on the diamond.

“Hayden’s energy, whether it’s positive or negative, the girls feed off it. So, I tell her all the time that everything depends on her and the catcher. It starts with them,” Newton head coach Virginia Tucker-Smith said. “She has a huge impact on this program.”

Tucker-Smith lauded the junior for leaning into more of a leadership role in her first season as an upperclassman. While the seniors were the undoubted leaders of the club, Pearson took it upon herself to constantly push and encourage her teammates in practice and in games.

Despite her continued success, Pearson’ humility remains in tact. She deflected all questions about her personal success by shifting the credit to her teammates and coaching staff. 

“I feel like our fall season was probably one of our best seasons since I’ve been here because of all the talent on our team,” Pearson said. “We were in a tougher region, and the coronavirus made everything different, but I think we stuck together and played really, really well.”

Whether she was setting the tone for the Lady Rams as a solid ace in the circle, or helping boost the offense with her .333 batting average in 101 plate appearances, Pearson proved to be a linchpin to success.

Coach of the Year — Virginia Tucker-Smith (Newton)

While it was a strong year for all softball teams in the area, perhaps no program was more successful in reaching its goals than the Lady Rams.

Now in her second stint at the helm, Tucker-Smith went into the 2020 season with the hopes of closing the gap between Newton and Eastside. She helped do just that, leading her team to their first win over the Lady Eagles since 2018 in late September.

Additionally, Newton collected a historic victory over defending state champions Locust Grove and Banks County, as well a thrilling extra-inning affair against Mountain View, before punching their ticket to the Class AAAAAAA state playoffs.

“I’m happy to see that the community as a whole has kind of realized that there’s some talent here at Newton, too,” Tucker-Smith said. “It’s always nice to say that you won all the county games. We had some impressive wins in our region and non-region schedules, too. I’m so proud of these girls and everything they were able to accomplish.”

Newcomer of the Year — Dezaria Johnson (Eastside)

Prior to the start of the 2020 season, Eastside’s Wood sang the praises of incoming freshman Dezaria Johnson. Wood said she and her staff didn’t want to put too much pressure on Johnson before she’d ever thrown a pitch at the varsity level, but they all acknowledged that her ceiling for potential was sky-high.

It didn’t take very long for the rest of the world to realize what they saw in their young pitcher.

Johnson was thrust into the role of primary starter on Eastside’s staff at the start of the year. She didn’t cave but instead thrived under the pressure, registering 79 strikeouts in 112 innings of work en route to posting a 2.36 ERA and 9-9 record in the circle. 

“Stepping on the mound my first game, I was so nervous. Being a freshman and being on varsity, I felt like there was a lot of pressure on my back,” Jonson admitted. “But as the season went on I felt relieved because I knew I had a strong defense behind me.”

Wood helped ease Johnson’s early-season jitters by imploring her to throw strikes and rely on the girls working behind her on defense. Once Johnson fully grasped this concept, the anxiety began to shed away.

“I think this year was so beneficial for her in her development as a pitcher and giving her the experience that she needs. Really, I’m thankful that we were able to finish the season because she got so many games under her belt,” Wood said. “We knew right away this summer — with her being so young and so inexperienced — we wanted her on the mound quickly. We wanted her in as many games as we can to really benefit her for the future and help her develop.”

Going forward Johnson is looking to focus on being more consistent in the strike zone and increasing her endurance. She still has three years of growth and maturation left, but Newton County has already been put on notice about what’s to come.

All-Area First Team 

Catcher: Heather Henderson, Eastside

First Base: Kyla Stroud, Newton

Second Base: Ashlyn Hoy, Alcovy

Third Base: Aulora Edwards, Newton

Shortstop: Lauren Burnett, Eastside

Outfield: Katelyn Anglin, Newton

Outfield: Alyssa Cruz, Eastside

Outfield: Halie Richardson, Social Circle

Pitcher: Aubrey Garrett, Social Circle

All-Area Second Team

Catcher: Kaitlyn Neely, Newton

First Base: Emma Hopper, Eastside

Second Base: Riley Hannah, Eastside

Third Base: Tara Poole, Social Circle

Shortstop: Alexa Wykoff, Social Circle

Outfield: Hayden Pearson, Newton

Outfield: Kelsey Ellis, Eastside

Pitcher: Lexie McDonald, Alcovy

Utility: Avery Bledsoe, Social Circle

All Area Honorable Mentions

Emma Thompson, Alcovy

Alexis Hernandez, Alcovy

Ty’Liah Hardeman, Newton

Tara Poole, Social Circle

Macy Langley, Social Circle

Kaylynn Scaffe, Social Circle