Thank you for being one of our most loyal readers. Please consider supporting community journalism by subscribing.
Chris Batten may be the dad of only one player from his program recently named to the North Carolina Softball Coaches Association 2-A All-State team. But he feels fatherly pride for the final recognition of all three Panthers who he watched grow up on the softball field, then coached for four years through 2019.
“I’ve been fortunate to watch all these kids also since they were young,” Batten said. “It’s easy to look at all of them as my kids.”
Blayke Batten, the head coach’s daughter, along with teammates Amberlyn Pearce and Lindsey Massengill, are all recent graduates looking forward to their own respective college softball careers that begin next fall. But before leaving Kenly for new softball opportunities across the state, the three players were repeat selections to the NCSCA all-state softball team, putting an exclamaion point on all they’d achieved with the North Johnston program.
With a .527 batting average in 2019, Batten led all North Johnston hitters. She finished the year with 39 hits and drove in 27 runs in 74 at bats. Despite stellar play, Batten said she thought her senior season could have gone better than it did, and didn’t count on being honored the way she was.
“I was pretty surprised,” said Batten, a UNC Greensboro softball signee who plans to major in kinesiology. “I try to never expect anything, but I’m really honored.”
While Batten did her part from the plate, Massengill was just behind her in offensive contributions. Massengill hit .476 in her senior campaign with 40 hits, 24 RBIs and 21 runs scored as another key hitter in the Panthers offense.
“I was proud of my hitting,” Massengill said. She noted her strength from the plate was knocking base hits in crucial moments, rather than hitting for power.
Massengill, the Panthers’ now-former third baseman, is headed to Barton College to play softball next season. She said she first found out she’d made the all-state team while scrolling through Facebook and saw Lady Bulldogs head coach Junior Bailey tagged her in a post along with other incoming players.
She later found out two of her high school teammates also made the team, and said that made sense given how well the trio played together.
“We have very good chemistry and we love seeing each other succeed,” Massengill said. “It’s pretty cool to get it with my best friends. I think that reflects how we had a great season and how close we are.”
In the field, Pearce made her mark in the pitcher’s circle. Pearce, who tied for 2-A Eastern Plains Conference Player of the Year along with Batten, was sitting in the kitchen with her dad when he told her she’d been named to the all-state team. She said her final accolade is a reflection of just how hard she worked all four years to get better each season.
“I think I did better and better every single year,” said Pearce, who is headed to UNC Wilmington to continue her softball career and plans to study exercise science.
Pearce pitched 103 innings in 2019, nearly 70 more innings than the next pitcher on the roster, and accumulated a low 1.70 ERA. She finished the year with an 11-5 record in 17 starts, while picking up a save along the way.
Those numbers underscored what the coach gave voice to, that she could always be counted on to put her team in a position to win when called upon.
“Four years with a pitcher and you have a pretty good relationship with her,” Chris Batten said. “To have that kind of relationship for four years makes a difference with how you approached teams. Selfishly, I could have pitched Amberlyn every game and not built the depth my program needed.”
Batten said he strives for his program to not chase after individual accolades, but be known for being strong across the board. He said this final recognition for three outgoing players is a reflection of that goal becoming a reality.
“I’ve said it a few different times since the season, this team has probably maximized their ability as a group the most of anyone since I’ve been here,” Chris Batten said. “Every player in this group found there role. If we lost one player on the roster, I don’t think we would have had the season that we had.”
‘DOESN’T TAKE THE STING OFF’
The recognition does not, however, come without some bittersweet emotions about the circumstances that ended the Panthers’ season.
In the fourth round of the NCHSAA playoffs, a run from a fifth-inning home run by Massengill was taken away after South Granville head coach Jackie Day complained to the umpire on the grounds that Massengill was touched by teammates before she touched home plate. After initially taking the lead on that hit, North Johnston eventually fell, 6-5. Their season was over, and it left a bad taste after what had otherwise been a successful year on the diamond.
An appeal made by the Panthers was later denied by the North Carolina High School Athletic Association.
“It doesn’t take the sting off the way the season ended,” Chris Batten said. “If you asked them they would turn in every certificate to get a chance to keep playing.”
But since that won’t be possible, North Johnston softball collected plenty of certificates and awards once its season was over, starting with all-district selections earlier this summer.
In the NCSCA All-District honors, Batten was named the 2-A Player of the Year in District 3, while Pearce took home 2-A Pitcher of the Year for the district. Massengill, Olivia Gachuz, Arial Pearce and Jordan Scott also represented the Panthers on the 2-A all-district team.
Many of the players who received postseason honors from North Johnston were upperclassmen who won’t be returning next season. For Chris Batten’s program, that leaves a massive hole to be filled next year and a challenge to be met.
“I’d be safe to say we are losing 60 to 70% of our offense,” Batten said. “I feel good about the kids we have returning.”