Central-Phenix City third baseman Shelby Newsome has every right to be upset.
Newsome was on an absolute tear this spring for the Lady Red Devils, and with her leading the way Central seemed prepared to make a real run at a state championship. The senior was slashing pitcher after pitcher through the team’s first 18 games, and with her help Central stood 15-3 with the meat of the area schedule still to come.
Newsome was poised to establish herself as the state’s premier hitter and for the Lady Red Devils to be in championship contention. Then just like that, those hopes disappeared.
Newsome was just one of countless softball players across the country whose senior year was ultimately cut short because of the coronavirus, and as a result she and Central’s other four 12th graders leave the program without a state championship. The premature close to the 2020 campaign is truly unfortunate given Newsome’s excellent play, as she boasted a .489 batting average with four doubles, two triples, nine home runs, 36 RBIs, 12 stolen bases and just one strikeout.
“She ended her senior year being — it could be argued, but the stats speak for themselves — the best player in the state,” Central coach Mitchell Holt said. “Even if Shelby’s season ended when it did after 18 games, her stats are what a lot of people wish a season could be for them. It was something to witness, and she was still the same Shelby throughout it all … I hate the way it ended because she was going to have a chance to receive awards that not many people on this side of the state even get considered for.”
Newsome was a star in a season gone too soon, and as a result she’ll likely walk away with far too little recognition and hardware for her efforts. The fact she could be angry about it, however, doesn’t resonate with her; instead, Newsome continues to take the high road about a situation no one could have ever anticipated.
“(The team’s early success) makes it tougher, yeah. I don’t know. I think we all learned a lot from the whole thing,” Newsome said. “We learned the relationships you built are bigger than the game, and I feel like everybody needed that eye-opener. Even if it had to be this year, I’m OK with it because I know they gave their all for me when we were out there.”
Highs and lows
As Central senior Katie Webb tore up the competition in 2016, the lingering question was who would replace her production once she moved on. It didn’t take long for the answer to clearly be Newsome.
Newsome was an eighth grader during 2016 as Webb — who is now a senior at Troy — led the way for the Lady Red Devils, and by that point Newsome had already turned some heads in Phenix City. She hit a home run in a varsity game as a seventh grader, and by the next year she was putting together productive at-bats to help a Central lineup that didn’t lack for talent.
Webb’s graduation brought a considerable hit to the program, but the damage was softened thanks to the eighth grader who casually put together a .333 batting average with six doubles, one triple and 25 RBIs.
Newsome became a key piece in Central’s Class of 2020, which quickly established itself as a class that could eventually lead Central all the way to a state championship in Montgomery. She followed her eighth-grade campaign with a freshman season that was even more productive, as she hit .410 with 10 doubles, one triple, one home run and 33 RBIs.
Newsome’s play at the plate was impressive, but her willingness to play whatever position was needed — and to do so with little issue — made it apparent she was truly something special.
“We played her at shortstop then moved her to the outfield (as an eighth grader). Her ninth grade year she ended up playing third for us a good bit. Tenth grade she played third and short, and then her junior and senior year she pretty much settled in at third base,” Holt said. “The entire time we knew she was probably playing out of position. Her best position was probably the outfield, but being the team player she was she was willing to take on that challenge and do what was best for us because she knew her being on the dirt was what was best for the program.
“She did it with everything she had, and she ended up being one of the best players to ever play for us.”
By the time Newsome went off as a sophomore to the tune of a .406 batting average, 12 doubles, six triples, seven home runs and 56 RBIs, everyone who watched the Lady Red Devils knew to expect something big every time No. 3 stepped into the batter’s box. With that came an immense amount of pressure for Newsome, and it came to a head in 2019.
Newsome was the go-to girl for Central, but her junior season hit an early snag with an injury in the team’s first scrimmage that sidelined her for six weeks. Holt said Newsome really never got to 100 percent as she fought to get back into the lineup, yet all the while she pressed herself to come through with a big hit every time she stepped to the plate.
“Not bragging on myself or anything, but I’ve always been the kid that everybody thought was going to get a hit. That was hard on me the past two years because I felt like everybody was on my back, and if I failed then I failed everybody,” Newsome said. As I got older, I realized that it really is a team sport. You don’t think it is when you’re up at the plate. You feel like everything’s on your shoulders, but it’s not.”
What transpired near the end of the season was a slump the likes of which Newsome had never experienced before. She still closed the year hitting .328 with five home runs and 35 RBIs — a down year for Newsome but by no means a poor showing — but she failed to come through in some big moments late as the Lady Red Devils came up short in the state tournament.
Newsome could have panicked due to the struggles and changed the way she went about the game. Instead, she stuck to her approach and her team-first attitude all the way.
“She always felt like she needed to do more, and what happened was she ended up trying to do much. What made Shelby who she is and what led to this year was during the biggest slump of her career — the biggest struggle she’s probably ever faced — she never changed,” Holt said. “It didn’t matter that she was struggling. She was still a leader in treating the team the way it needed to be treated. It didn’t matter if she was 0-for or struck out twice or what was going on. She was steady.”
By the time Newsome’s senior season rolled around, that pressure was gone.
Whether it was having signed with Jacksonville State, the understanding that this was her last year in a Central uniform or something else, Newsome didn’t worry about the statistics anymore. The numbers didn’t define her, and her main concern was playing with her team and trying to make 2020 a special year.
It didn’t take long for the results to speak for themselves. Newsome began raking just as soon as the year got under way, which included a ridiculous performance in a tournament at Auburn High in which she hit six home runs in three games.
Word spread so fast that by the time Central played Sparkman in Jacksonville, the Lady Senators opted to intentionally walk her rather than risk seeing another yellow ball fly past the outfield fence.
“When she was in her six home-run streak, she said, ‘(The softballs) just look like beach balls,’” Holt said. “It was a fun two days — a fun Friday night and Saturday morning. I couldn’t believe they kept pitching to her, but I’m glad they did.”
Newsome’s tear continued once Central reached double-digit games, but by March 13 there were rumblings the season may come to a close soon. Central managed to keep a doubleheader the following day against Montgomery Catholic and Prattville Christian, the latter of which saw Newsome drive home Central’s first run in what proved to be a 2-1 victory.
Newsome and her teammates knew there was a good chance the game over the Lady Panthers could be their last as a team, so they did their best to make the most out of every moment. Two months later, Newsome pointed to that Saturday as the highlight of her senior season.
“Coach warned us before the day that it could be our last one, and we just played it like it was our last one. We won both games, so I just felt like we ended it really well,” Newsome said. “I just remember everybody was smiling and laughing because we knew it could be our last time together and we were enjoying every second of it.”
Newsome said maintaining a routine — something stressed within the Central program — has been crucial for her in the months after the season ended, but some days have been tougher than others.
Last Thursday and Friday, for example, would have been the state championship series in Montgomery, a pair of games Newsome believes she and the Red Devils would have been playing in.
“It crossed my mind. I was thinking, ‘Yeah, we should be out there right now,’” Newsome said. “Those days were difficult. I definitely had to keep myself busy.”
The Alabama Sports Writers Association won’t have a softball team this year for Newsome to land on, and there will be no All-Area accolades for her to add to her collection. Still, there’s no sense of bitterness from Newsome.
Newsome’s struggles as a junior showed her how little the praise or the awards meant to her personally and helped her recognize the value of being a Lady Red Devil. The close of that chapter in her playing career came too soon, but her intent is to grow from it and get ready for the next one.
“The most important thing I’ve learned is definitely to never take a day for granted. Everybody says that, but it’s so true. We learned that this year,” Newsome said. “I would stress to them that none of this is about sports. It’s about meeting people, building relationships and building friendships. Then you also get to do the thing you love with them. That’s what I learned.”