Ones to beat: LHS senior McCullough motivates team
If there is one lesson the Lafayette Commodores learned from missing out on the MHSAA playoffs in 2013 it was to not to depend on another team to take care of their business. LHS missed out on the chance to win a state championship last year because of too many missed opportunities during the season. When the chance to gain a spot in the playoffs turned sour for the Commodores, they made it their sole mission to never feel that pain again.
The way LHS coach Katie Moore looks at it, the disappointment improved her team, so much so that the Commodores earned the region championship and a first-round bye in the Class 4A playoffs this spring.
“They have finally come to realize what it’s like to be the team to beat, to be the ones to walk out there with confidence and see that people are intimidated by them instead of the flip side. This team has been the team to beat for a long time, they just haven’t had it in their head that they were the team to beat. They felt like they always had to scrape from the bottom. They are seeing what it’s like to not like losing. It’s not that we don’t just want to win, we want the team to not score on us. That is a goal,” Moore said. “This team said before the season they were the ones that wanted to control things. We want to host, we want to be at home. We’re not waiting on anybody else to do it for us or have to sit back like we did last year. That hurt, not making the playoffs, that’s something I brought up to them a few times and you could see it in their faces. They remember when I called back from Lewisburg and the outcome didn’t come out like it should have and we lost. I think that made them better and I think it changed the mentality and how they approach other teams and how they take the field. They had never come back from losses in a game. This year, they have overcome mentally and physically being down and they see what that’s like and that they’re capable.”
On a team that has been motivated from the opener, one player, senior pitcher Avery McCullough, has really showed what hard work and determination can do on the field. McCullough has been almost flawless for the Commodores in the circle. She is 14-2 on the year, with a 1.12 ERA. She has four shutouts, two saves and logged 87.2 innings, stats that are far and away better than her junior year when she first really started to pitch. Her improvement has not only caught the eye of her coach, but everyone else on the team and her diligence at being the best has rubbed off on a veteran team made up of seven seniors.
“She got a lot more time in pitching last year, in the last few district games. She was real big at the end and that did nothing but just boost her confidence for this year. She’s gotten stronger and stronger as she has gone through the year,” said Moore, who loves McCullough’s ability to spot pitches. “It’s not that she’s got overpowering speed, it’s her spots and movement. She can go in, in, in and then she’ll go away from somebody and then move right back in on them. She’s the movement pitcher. Anybody can catch up to a fastball. No matter how hard you throw it, eventually, in the third at bat in a game, you can catch up to somebody’s speed. She’s really good about going high and low and she’s got a really good screwball.”
When it has mattered the most, McCullough has been clutch, one of the other things Moore loves about her.
“She doesn’t fall under pressure. She works well with that. There were times where she had big shutout innings, big strikeouts. Even when the bases would get loaded on her, she could come back and shut them down in the end. I knew at the end of last year she was going to be essential and she was going to be good. I knew how hard she worked in the summer, and then in the fall, even when she was playing volleyball, she still came down during her senior off time and did stuff,” Moore said. “She always made sure she got her pitching workouts in. I could tell that it was a high priority to her, that she didn’t want to lose anything she had gained. That usually happens their senior year, but you usually have to get them to do it closer to the season. She started from day one. She came out more on her own this year and she knew what she wanted her pitches doing this year.”
The success gained in the last half of the 2013 season made an impression on McCullough, who has grown up in a sports-minded family. Her brother, Luke, was a standout for the LHS baseball team and her brother’s success also fueled her.
“He’s helped me a lot. When he was a senior, all he did was hit, hit. It paid off a lot and I look up to him because he worked so hard to where he played in college. I hope that I can fill his shoes,” McCullough said. “When I started pitching more last year, I realized in district play how hard I had to work. We were in the situation of waiting to see where we would end up. This year, I’ve worked even harder to see where we’re going to stand in the district. It was pretty upsetting not making the playoffs last year.
“We’re bonded more and we’re coming together. I have a lot of confidence in my defense behind me so if I pitch it where I need to pitch it, I have the defense to back me up.”
The ability to pitch with confidence hasn’t come exclusively through hard work for McCullough. She is married to her catcher, best friend Rae Drewrey, who has played with her since middle school. Moore calls McCullough the mother of the relationship, while Drewrey plays the father role.
“I think the pitcher-catcher combos in the past have been good, but when you look at personalities and just the togetherness and how in sync they are, this is the best. It’s not that they’re carefree, but if one is frustrated with something, the other one is good to pull the other back. The pitcher is the mother because everything falls on them. The team looks to them, they get the win or loss in the end. They have be the mother hen, take care of all the errors in the infield, they have to pull (infield) all in together and talk,” Moore said. “Then if the pitcher gets rattled, there is the daddy, the catcher of Rae, who has to come in and bring the entire family together and make sure that the mother is happy. We have to keep her happy to make sure she continues to do what she can on the field and that the rest of the children are following behind them. They both take to their roles well, one doesn’t try to overpower the other at any time that we’ve seen.”
The relationship has made an already strong friendship even stronger, McCullough said, which in turn has led to 19 wins and an undefeated mark in region play.
“Rae is very important to me. We’ve been best friends for a very long time. We have a great pitcher-catcher bond. We have to be married,” McCullough said. “She has to calm me down so that the kids behind me don’t have a freak-out moment. I get more frustrated on myself. I’m very hard on myself. If I throw a few balls, Rae has to come talk to me to calm me down. She tells me it’s OK.”
Drewrey has been very impressed with how her best friend has handled everything put on her when it comes to making the Commodores a state title contender.
“The movement on her pitches have gotten a lot better. I can tell that her attitude on the field has gotten a lot better with maturity,” Drewrey said. “We used to play in the outfield together for six years and just being in the outfield together and playing volleyball together the past two years, that and we’ve been best friends since middle school, it has made our bond that much better.”
McCullough hasn’t just been great pitching wise, she’s been just as important to Lafayette at the plate, hitting near .500 most of the year and driving in 12 runs as the No. 5 hitter in a very potent lineup.
“Offensively, she has also come in big. She’s been in that batting cage. They go daily and they hit and hit and hit. Even after practice. They hit during their senior time. We hit all the time,” Moore said. “It’s amazing how much of our offense and pitching feed off each other. If Avery goes out and there and is confident and pitching well, our offense comes in and follows behind her. Or if the offense starts it, Avery feels a lot more confident out there pitching.
“Even if we’re not getting three or four runs in an inning, if we’re getting quality at bats, it’s a lot different for her throwing and being able to go a little more risky,” Moore added. “That’s something we’ve done more this year. We’ve worked on her fielding more balls and turning two, which is great. She’s probably the only pitcher, in all of my years of coaching, that when a ball is hit in the infield, she’s calling off everyone else. Just from all her years in the outfield, I know she’s going to catch the pop fly and get the grounders.”
With the goal of getting into the playoffs now accomplished, the next step is winning a couple of series in order to reach championship series next month.
“We have the potential to be really good. We came into the season thinking we were going to be good, but maybe not as good as last year and we’ve blown last year out of the water. It’s amazing how much more we’ve scored and everything,” Drewrey said. “The first couple of games of the season, I could tell that we were going to go pretty far. We went thinking about beating Senatobia because they and North Pontotoc put us out of the playoffs.”
“Our softball team has never made it past the first round, so this is a big step. If we can make it past the first round, I think we can go pretty far,” McCullough added. “Our main goal this year was to determine our outcome. That’s all we talked about, that we’re going to make the playoffs, we’re going to make the playoffs. Last year we had to wait on a text to see if we made the playoffs. The seniors last year had to sit around and wait. They didn’t know if it was their last game or not. That wasn’t going to happen to us this time.”