Click Here to view this Link.
There is no questioning that the best softball in the United States is played on West Coast. One look down the rosters of PAC-12, SEC, and Big XII conference teams will confirm California is the hotbed of softball talent.
But there are pockets of Division-I caliber players elsewhere in the country. One small pocket happens to be in the western portion of West Virginia.
It came as no surprise when Marshall coach Shonda Stanton announced five early signees to the program, three of them were from the Huntington-area. Morgan Kelly and Morgan Zerkle from Milton, W.Va. (Cabell Midland High School) and Jessica Watts of Wayne, W.Va. recently signed National Letters of Intent to play for the Herd.
The fact that the three have been best friends since they were youngsters in the Mountain Thunder travel program helped make their decision easy. The success of Andi Williamson (Harts, W.Va./Chapmanville HS), Samantha Spurlock (Huntington, W.Va./Huntington HS), Alyssa Hively (Clay, W.Va./Clay County HS) and Ashley Gue (Huntington, W.Va./Cabell Midland HS) has helped pave the way for local players on the Conference USA stage.
"Knowing that they can succeed in softball at Marshall gives us high hopes that we can succeed and make something of ourselves here close at home," Zerkle said.
For the trio, the success on the field has spawned friendships off the diamond. Mountain Thunder won the 18-U Eastern National Championship over the summer, proving they can compete at a high level beyond the Mountain State's borders. The team was playing against squads mostly a year older than them. They've always played an age-division ahead of their actual age, meaning they've played against, and succeeded against, some of the top competition in the country.
"I think it just says a lot about this area that three girls from the same area can go to their hometown, Division I college and know that we still can compete with other people across the nation," Zerkle said.
Zerkle missed much of her junior season in 2012 because of a knee injury. She said the rehabilitation has gone well.
"Morgan will be one of the faster players to ever come through our program," Stanton said. "Her speed will put tremendous pressure on the defense and make her a tough out. She is a great fit for our offense and she will excel in our system."
Kelly is a corner infielder who will likely find a home at first base. She had 49 RBI for the Knights, who reached the Class AAA Region IV championship game.
"It feels great. It's what I've always wanted since I was a little girl," Kelly said. "It's just good to know that all of the hard work has paid off and I can finally do what I love at Marshall."
"Morgan has a strong bat and the power potential to be a middle-of-the-lineup type of hitter. Having been to several of our camps, we have been most impressed with her coachable ability and her attention to detail," Stanton said. "She will be a joy to coach because of her desire to always be better and her passion for the green and white."
Watts is a two time first team AA all-state selection, who helped lead the Pioneers to a 30-6 season and the school's first ever softball state title in 2012.
A lifelong Herd fan, Watts is looking forward to wearing green and white in 2014.
"I've always wanted to play at Marshall. When I put on the uniform, it's not really just representing just the coaches and the team," Watts said. "It's representing the whole community. It's really special to me."
"Jessica is a versatile athlete that can play middle infield or the outfield. She was instrumental in Wayne's state championship run and will transfer that winning attitude to her passion for the Herd," Stanton said. "Having been well coached, she has great instincts on the bases with a good aggressive style of play."
So how close are the three? They attended their Mountain Thunder teammates' signings, which were held the same day at their two high schools. And while this is a feel good story of three long-time friends, brought together by a shared passion for softball, there is an underlying story of near tragedy.
Mountain Thunder participated in a tournament in Denver, Colo. over the summer. The team stayed in a hotel in the suburb of Aurora, and while in the area, walked to the local theater to watch a movie.
A week later, that same theater complex would be in national headlines after a mass shooting at the premier of the latest Batman movie.
It hit close to home for the trio, but their defining moments remain ahead of them. Both Cabell Midland (AAA) and Wayne (AA) will be among favorites to win state titles in 2013. The Pioneers and Knights did meet in 2012, with Wayne winning 5-1.
Soon enough, however, the three won't just be teammates for the summer. Like their friendships, they'll be teammates year-around.
"I've played with them for a really long time," Zerkle said. "They've become some of my best friends. It's really good to know we're going to have the opportunity to play together for four more years."
"It's great, not a lot of girls get a chance to play with their best friends at a local Division I college," Kelly said.
"It means a lot to me. I'm glad I get to spend four more years with Z and Morgan," Watts said. "They've been my best friends since we came together. I'm just really excited to get to play with them."
Ryan Epling is an analyst with Herd Nation. Comments and questions are welcomed and encouraged on the Old Fairfield forum.