— By Ryan Pritt, HD Media
CHARLESTON, W.Va. — In finishing as the Class AAA runner up with two losses to Cabell Midland in the state tournament at Little Creek Park, it wasn’t exactly the fairy tale ending St. Albans sophomore Tayven Stephenson and the Red Dragons had in mind.
But Stephenson possibly showed as much to her coach, teammates and the state in defeat as she did in a dominant debut season that came with plenty of wins and accolades including the Gatorade state player of the year.
Pitching through bloody, painful blisters in the regional round and at the state tournament, Stephenson demonstrated a determined toughness that matched the unhittable pitching arsenal and power bat she flashed during an undefeated regular season for St. Albans.
And though the Red Dragons fell just short of a title, Stephenson added yet another honor to her personal ledger as she was named the state player of the year as voted on by the West Virginia Sports Writers Association.
Stephenson came into the prep ranks with plenty of hype after committing to the University of Kentucky as a 12-year-old and after her freshman season was canceled due to the COVID-19 pandemic, her long-awaited debut didn’t disappoint. Even with two losses at the state tournament, Stephenson accumulated a 20-3 record with a 0.62 ERA with 245 strikeouts in 1351/3 innings while hitting .403 and bashing 11 home runs with 45 RBIs.
But while the numbers were nice, the lasting image of Stephenson rushing to the bench in pain between innings – and even in between pitches – to apply another layer of artificial skin over her bloodied, exposed fingers may be the one that lingers. And it’s the one that only further endeared herself to her team and community.
“I don’t think it would matter if she was on crutches, she’s not going to let you take her out of a game,” St. Albans coach Christian Watts said. “She’s a selfless person. She’s going to do whatever it takes to try and help her teammates. You have to have a lot of respect for a kid like that. She’s a once-in-a-lifetime kid as a coach and she just wants to succeed and wants everyone around her to succeed.”
For most of the season, that was certainly the case as the Red Dragons ripped off 28 straight wins to begin the year before falling 5-4 in a Region 3 opener at Greenbrier East. Blister problems arose in that game as well and though Stephenson returned to win the third game of the series and was a full go heading into the state tournament, the problem only worsened.
“They were on my middle finger and thumb,” Stephenson explained. “Every inning it would bleed and it burned so bad every time I threw the ball. I think it definitely effected my spin.”
“It literally looked like someone put her hand in a meat cutter,” Watts added.
Currently, Stephenson is already back with her travel team, participating in a tournament in Colorado just a week after the state tournament. Though she continues to battle blisters, she is also absorbing as much as she can and hopes the continued grind will have her better prepared for the rugged prep season next year.
Squeezing 35 games into two-plus months was the biggest adjustment Stephenson said she had to make and it was one that was difficult to anticipate until she was in the middle of it.
“That was rough,” Stephenson admitted. “I think so, because you never had a big break to just rest. Every day it was go, go, go. If we didn’t have games, we had practice.
“I think I’ll be better prepared next year to do better with that. Hopefully, next year we have a normal season [not moved by COVID-19] and we won’t have to squeeze quite as many games into quite as small amount of time.”
Despite the workload, Stephenson was able to keep most opposing hitters befuddled with a mid-60s fastball to go with a rise ball, change-up and curve ball. That velocity, though already obviously a plus, is something Stephenson said she is continuing to work on and that was on of several goals she had coming into the year.
“Obviously, I wanted to win states and all of that,” Stephenson said. “But really, I just wanted to throw my best and get better with each pitch.”
Now, with six seniors departing next season, Stephenson will have to improve in other areas as well, primarily in terms of leadership. And though much of the pop in the lineup and several of the bodies in the field will be gone, Stephenson believes the Red Dragons can be a threat again next season, especially with the lessons learned at the state tournament behind them.
“I think we’re going to have a group of girls coming up and we can share knowledge with them,” Stephenson said. “We’ve been in that situation now and hopefully, we’ll be right back at states next year.”
And for Watts, regardless of what his team does, he believes the state has only gotten its first glimpse of what is to come over the next two years.
“She had a great year, but it leads you to think, ‘Man, if this happened this year … this should’ve been her second year of high school ball,’” Watts said. “On paper, she’s a 10th grader, but in reality, she was a freshman. This was just her coming out party for high school ball.”