- January 5, 2017
WINTER GARDEN Of all her teammates on the West Orange softball team, Jade Caraway may have taken the longest to move past the Warriors’ season-ending loss in the Class 8A Region 1 Championship last May.
West Orange’s 2-1 defeat at the hands of the Hagerty Huskies came by way of a go-ahead solo home run in extra innings. Caraway, the Warriors’ center fielder, covered an incredible amount of ground to make a play on the ball as it cleared the fence in left-center field. Initially, she caught it — but upon her impact with the wall, the ball came dislodged and fell just beyond her reach.
It was a cruel twist of fate on a ball that the majority of outfielders likely would not even have a shot on which to make a play. But, as the senior standout prepares for her final season at West Orange, there is no sense of regret regarding what happened in the past — there is just motivation.
“It took me a while, for sure, to get over that game,” Caraway said. “It motivates me, especially for this season.”
The spring 2016 season marks Caraway’s fourth season as a varsity starter for the ultra-competitive program at West Orange. Caraway, who initially took to cheerleading as a youth, decided she wanted to give softball a shot on a whim when she was 7. Her family drove past a softball field where a game was being played.
A decade later, that whim seems to have worked out well.
Caraway is signed to play Division I college softball at North Carolina State and, before that, will be one of the leaders on a Warriors team this spring that — once again — figures to be among the best in the region. After losing six incredibly talented seniors from last year’s roster to graduation, Caraway — long the Warriors’ “spark plug,” hitting at the leadoff position — will be asked by head coach Todd LaNeave to do even more this spring.
“She is going to be a catalyst — she is going to have to be, and I think she knows that,” LaNeave said. “Because she’s that leadoff (hitter), when she is going, it gets everybody else going. She is going to be very instrumental in our success.”
In addition to her role as a speedy center fielder with a cannon for an arm, as well as West Orange’s leadoff hitter, Caraway now will be asked to pitch — something she hasn’t done much since her freshman year. The Warriors will bring back ultra-talented junior Lauren Mathis — who committed to the University of Georgia as a sophomore — as their ace, but will be without their other ace from last season, Kelsey Morrison (now a freshman at the University of Tennessee).
Perhaps just as importantly as being asked to pitch, though, Caraway will also be asked to be a leader this spring.
“She’s always kind of led by example — I’m leaning on her now to be that vocal leader, as well,” LaNeave said. “I told her, ‘However you want to look at it, those other girls look up to you — they’re watching everything you do.’”
Of course, teammates and competitors alike have been watching the way Caraway carries herself for some time now. Caraway started as a freshman for the Warriors and has been a standout for several club teams.
Most recently, she was part of the Windermere Wildfire Stutsman team that won a national championship in the summer. Playing with several of her outgoing teammates from West Orange was a nice way to bounce back after the heartbreaking end to the varsity season. It was also one last go-round with an old friend whom Caraway said she learned a lot from through the years — Cassady Brewer.
Brewer, now a freshman for UCF, started her varsity career at West Orange, where her father, Bobby Brewer, was the coach. Bobby Brewer left to coach baseball at Ocoee following the 2013 season, and Cassady played her final two seasons at Apopka — one of the Warriors’ main rivals.
Getting to be teammates one last time — and winning a national title in the process — was definitely a perk, Caraway says.
“She knows the game so well and has helped teach me the mental part of the game,” Caraway said of Brewer. “I look up to her for knowing the game front and back.”
Caraway committed to N.C. State as a sophomore. The talented Warrior fell in love with the campus and the program and also appreciated the fervor with which the coaches recruited her.
For its part, N.C. State is getting a well-rounded player whose speed is a cut above.
“Her speed is a huge factor — she is so quick and smart on the bases,” LaNeave said. “Out of the box it’s just ridiculous. She’s very skilled in the outfield. She gets to balls most won’t. She’s got a great arm — she’s just the whole package.”
That she became a highly sought recruit by Division I programs is something Caraway credits in part to having played for a varsity program with the tradition that West Orange has.
“It made me a better player having to come in as a freshman and having to earn the privilege to play and the privilege to start,” Caraway said.
Duplicating last season’s success will not come easily. All six of the Warriors’ seniors who graduated are playing college softball — three at the Division I level. It’s a challenge that Caraway is prepared to embrace, and she believes her teammates are, too.
“I feel like there are a lot of people that are eager to play and eager to finally have this chance to be on varsity and start,” Caraway said. “People are hungry, and they’re ready.”
Contact Steven Ryzewski at [email protected]