Bruce, Maddox lead Knights’ softball charge
When Payton Bruce and Jayden Maddox are away from the North Lincoln High softball field, they’re light-hearted and easy to approach.
But as soon as they step onto the diamond, the only jokes the top softball pair want to make are of their opponent.
That’s been no problem this season.
“We’re doing 10 times better this year compared to last season,” Maddox said.
The team’s secret? It’s been a combination of things, Maddox said. When the Knights brought in Kristen Bryson to coach, the team’s attitude changed. Players were more eager to practice.
“We’re bonding more as a team this year,” said Bruce, a junior. “It’s fun to go out there and play.”
Along with the rise in morale, improved chemistry keyed the Knights’ ascension to the top of the Southern Piedmont 1A/2A conference.
Entering North Lincoln’s April 17 game against West Lincoln, the Knights’ 7-1 record in league games marks one of the best starts in school history. The team’s 9-2 overall record isn’t shabby, either.
“It’s more than I expected, I’ll be honest,” said Bryson, an Ohio native.
North Lincoln lost its first game of the 2012 campaign 7-5 to Claremont Bunker Hill on March 6.
“We knew we were a good team, but we needed to work on some things to (improve),” Bruce said.
It didn’t take long to improve, and the Knights soon forgot what it felt like to lose.
North Lincoln rattled off seven straight wins, including a 6-5 victory on March 20 over second-place Lake Norman Charter and a 22-1 win over Gastonia Highland Tech two days later.
“I saw the players we had and saw a lot of potential throughout the roster,” Bryson said. “Jayden and Payton were two people who I knew were going to contribute. They’re both good hitters who we can rely on, but we’re a strong team in many ways. This season has been a great surprise.”
North Lincoln has shown its muscle in different facets of the game. Bruce – regarded as one of the best long-ball hitters on the team – provides power. So does Maddox.
Sheer strength can get a team far, but skills like speed, baserunning and strategy also ignited the Knights.
Bryson’s defensive coaching brought cohesiveness to the team’s fielding.
Last year, the Knights were low on outfielders, so some of the team’s best defensive players had to play out of position. Since Bryson assumed control, that versatility has paid off.
“I can switch girls around to different places in the field and they can just go out and do what they need to do,” Bryson said. “That’s a real strength.”
Maddox said she’s always enjoyed playing defense, but she doesn’t like diving for balls in the infield. Bryson’s solution: Teach Maddox to appreciate the importance of doing what it takes to get the ball.
“She said if I didn’t learn to dive for the ball, I’d have to just dive randomly during a game,” Maddox said. It’s made her a more rounded player, she said.
Bryson said Maddox’s attitude was ideal for a team that needed a force.
“Jayden is incredibly funny when she knows she can play around,” Bryson said. “But when she’s on the field she’s really intense. I try to channel that energy she brings and get our other players to have that kind of focus.”
And it’s worked wonders.
Bruce, who Bryson said brings a sense of calm to the team, said North Lincoln’s biggest challenge isn’t East Lincoln or Lincolnton, but a challenge from within.
“We need to keep up the intensity,” Bruce said. “We get hyped up for big games, but we’re working on bringing that attitude to every game we play.”
If the Knights are able to do that, the team’s preseason hopes could be realized. To Bruce, Maddox and the Knights, that’s no laughing matter.
“We’re confident we can win the conference,” Bruce said. “We’ve just got to keep going.”