There’s no column I enjoy writing more than the “Best of the Best” athletes each May. There’s also no column I dread more.
This is a process I take very seriously. I want to accurately point out who I felt were the best high-school athletes in the area this school year. I’ll talk to people and get their opinions, but ultimately I decide on my own.
Being a committee of one isn’t an easy job and many times I wish I had a tiebreaker. There’s rarely clear-cut options to fill the categories, all of which I came up with years ago.
As it has been for the last several years, the girls side seems to give me the most difficulty. I may be a prisoner of the moment, but this year I leaned toward the heavy hitters who powered the Lady Pioneers to a sectional run in softball.
Here are this year’s “Best of the Best” female athletes as selected by yours truly.
Athlete of the year
This is a career achievement award for one of the best to suit up for the Lady Pioneers. Mikkola has been a starter for three years in three different sports, and a very good one at that.
Her senior campaign may actually have been a slight step back from years past, only because a wrist injury kept her from playing all but one game during the volleyball season (and it may be her best sport). Even with dealing with the lingering effects of offseason surgery, Mikkola was still a standout.
The Lady Pioneers wouldn’t have been in the position they were last week – one game from the state tournament – without their shortstop. Mikkola is a two-time District 6AAA infielder of the year and one of the best hitters in the Midstate.
Three local coaches are going to be weeping when they have to fill out their lineup cards without Mikkola next year. Every other District 6AAA coach is ecstatic she’s graduating.
Count me in with the former. I’ll miss “Mik.”
Honorable mention – Ashton Whiles (softball), Rachel Stewart (soccer/tennis), Emma Grace Madewell (Covenant soccer/volleyball/basketball)
Senior of the year
Hailey Wood (softball/volleyball)
It’s only fitting the longtime BFFs take the top two honors. Wood and Mikkola are inseparable, so it would’ve been easy to give them co-player of the year honors. Instead, I’m giving Wood the top senior honor.
Wood’s individual numbers are staggering. She’s likely leaving the softball program as one of the top performers in school history in runs scored, hits and stolen bases. She hit .375 or better all four years, topping out as a junior at .405, when she won District 6AAA MVP.
She was just as impressive for the volleyball team, finishing with 1,595 assists.
Wood’s production won’t be easily replaced.
Honorable mention – Madewell, Allison Franco (wrestling), Tyra Wright (basketball)
Freshman of the year
Never was a coin toss more needed than when I had to select between Hollis, a two-sport stud, and Katie Toney, an all-state level performer for the Lady Pioneer soccer program.
At the final moment, I leaned to Hollis.
Last week, Hollis was the best player on the Lady Pioneers, which feature three college signees – two of which are honored above. Better yet, Hollis should be (if it’s even an award) the Region 3AAA tournament MVP.
Her dominance in back-to-back shutouts was mind blowing. I don’t know if I’ve ever seen that kind of poise in the moment by any Pioneer or Lady Pioneer, regardless of age. Hollis was locked in.
Count in her ability to join the volleyball rotation as a freshman and she slightly edges Toney. These two will be battling for top honors for the next three years.
Honorable mention – Toney (soccer), Jaden Smartt (Basketball/soccer), Breezy Wanamaker (soccer)
Ask basketball fans to name a member of the Lady Pioneer basketball team and they’re likely to say Tyra Wright first. Ask the same question to softball followers and you’ll hear Mikkola, Wood and probably Ashton Whiles. It makes sense – all those seniors are signed to play at the next level.
Rains isn’t, but she is just as valuable.
The Lady Pioneer senior led the basketball team in scoring last winter, topping her College of Charleston bound teammate’s production. Rains carried over her momentum to softball, where she was a lockdown right fielder and clutch hitter.
I’ve rarely ever heard Rains speak, but her talent does plenty of talking.
Honorable mention –Samantha Jennings (volleyball/softball), Mary-Ella Lee (tennis), Kapri Talley (Boyd basketball)
Coach of the year
Gooby Martin (Softball)
How could it be anybody else? Martin has been building to this moment for years, knowing this group had the potential to be historic. They didn’t disappoint.
Martin pushed all the right buttons down the stretch, even after the team fell short of a district championship. He didn’t let the district championship loss submarine the Lady Pioneers. Instead, they rallied with their two best wins of the season.
It’s rare to see a coach who is equally loved and respected by all his players. Martin is.
Honorable mention – Chris Madewell (Covenant volleyball), Todd Willmore (soccer), John Upchurch (tennis)