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PREP SOFTBALL: Newton has closed the gap
Tyliah HArdeman
Newton Rams junior shortstop Ty'Liyah Hardeman and sophomore pitcher Hayden Pearson should be two key pieces for a program that is on the rise. Photo by Michael Pope.

Newton softball has struggled in year's past, but head coach Virginia Tucker-Smith has turned this program around and built it up into a formidable team.

Prior to Tucker-Smith's return to the Rams program in 2018, the team had not had a winning season since 2013. Coincidentally enough, the head coach of the Rams in that winning season was Tucker-Smith.

The Rams were a competitive team in those years without Tucker-Smith, but she seems to bring the Rams to a different level of excellence.

In the gap between Tucker-Smith's two tenures as head coach, the Rams had a combined record of 33-56-1. Since her return to the program, 31-16 and gained win 32 on the final game of the season.

That means that in two seasons the Rams are only one win away from matching their win total over the previous four years without Tucker-Smith at the helm.

Another noticeable difference, under her direction of the program between now and year's past, is the competitiveness against the upper echelon of teams in their region and county.

The competition with cross-county rivals, the Eastside Eagles, has been heavily tipped in the Eagles direction for an extended period of time. However, these past two seasons have been much closer matches between these two rivals.

"In years prior to these last few, there was no competition in softball. Eastside pretty much just destroyed everybody," said Tucker-Smith. "So just being able to be competitive with them for a whole game or a few innings, but I mainly just want the girls to have fun because they all really wanted this match (against Eastside)."

Being competitive for a couple of innings is an understatement, as Tucker-Smith coached her Rams to a victory over the Eagles last season. The Eagles still won the season series with two victories over the Rams, but that victory is another step in the right direction. 

This season the two teams only met for one game and the Rams held the lead for the majority of the game, but lost in the final couple of innings.

When asked how this competitive shift occurred, Tucker-Smith gave most of the credit to how her players have bought in and how that attracts other athletes to Newton.

"I think the girls have kind of bought into the program, and because they've bought into the program, other that are girls coming up through middle school are kind of considering both schools," said Tucker-Smith. "Before that, no one was really considering, and girls in middle school are taking more interest in our program. 

In region play, the Rams have started to challenge the Archers and Graysons of the world. This season marked the first win over Archer in school history, and they should continue to contend with the top teams in their region with some of their young talent.

Two standouts that should make an exceptional difference in the future success of Rams softball are Auburn commit and freshman Kyla Stroud and sophomore Hayden Pearson.

Tucker-Smith is still hopeful for this team to achieve 20 wins, which she believes has never been done in school history. It would not be a surprise for the Rams to complete such a feat with postseason and the region tournament looming. If they accomplish this goal, it would be just another impressive feat for the program under Tucker-Smith's direction.

The Rams outstanding play in the past two seasons under Tucker-Smith have not gone unnoticed by some coaches in the area. Eagles head coach Heather Wood has been very impressed by their improvement as a team.

"I think they have done a tremendous job this season. They have a great shortstop and center fielder, and they're very athletic," said Wood. "They're one of those teams that you can never relax on, and we know that. I've seen them improve over the years and this is one of the better teams I've seen."

If the Rams continue to improve under Tucker-Smith's direction and gain exceptional young talent, the sky is the limit for this team. They could easily not only dethrone the Eagles as the top softball program in the county but also provide a tough challenge for both Grayson and Archer in their region.