EAGLE POINT — Riley Shopp knew one day she would have some big shoes to fill in the Eagle Point softball program, and yet that didn’t stop her from experiencing a “wake-up call” the first time she stepped inside the pitching circle this season.
That spot had been filled the past few years by ace pitcher Megan Ayres, who was the Midwestern League’s co-pitcher of the year in 2017, and all of a sudden all eyes were on the sophomore Shopp.
“I knew it was going to happen but it just kind of caught me off guard,” said the 16-year-old Shopp. “I was so nervous but I was really excited that I was going to get my chance and show what I was capable of. I had butterflies but I knew with my defense if I got in any trouble that they’d have my back.”
The butterflies are still there — Shopp admittedly has them at the start of most games — but so are the positive results as the 5-foot-10 left-hander has more than held her own against some pretty tough competition thus far.
In doing so, Shopp has helped Eagle Point maintain its hopes for a breakthrough season when the Class 5A state playoffs begin in three weeks. Despite many opportunities, the Eagles haven’t won a state playoff game since advancing to the 5A semifinals in 2007, and have never reached the championship game.
“I believe that we may be at the point where we’re ready to do that in the playoffs,” said Eagle Point head coach John White of his program taking that next step. “In the past we’ve just kind of approached it internally — no matter what I seemed to do — like it was just another game and then other teams would raise their emotional level and that would be it. But I don’t see that happening this year, I think the girls are ready.”
The Eagles (15-5, 11-3 MWL) certainly proved their competitive mettle Tuesday with a 4-3, eight-inning win over defending 5A champion Marist, and they’ll look to build off that moment as they spend the next few weeks wrapping up their league schedule and prepping for the playoffs.
“That was the greatest thing ever, we all started balling our eyes out,” Shopp said of winning at Marist. “We knew we were capable of it, it was just a matter of coming together and we definitely had our bond and got our game face on and definitely played as a family.”
That same family feeling is what has make her own transition back inside the circle this season so much easier for Shopp.
“There were a few times that I was struggling and I got nervous,” she admitted, “but I just had to mentally become stronger and realize that we can get through this as a team and I’m not an individual. I don’t have to do it all, I can rely on my team. And the whole team has been really supportive and encouraging of me all along.”
Shopp takes a 12-4 record into Saturday’s doubleheader at Springfield. She has posted six shutouts this season and 97 strikeouts in her return to pitching after last year’s one-season hiatus. Last year, she was a first-team all-MWL outfielder.
“She spent a lot of time in the offseason getting herself prepared for this both physically and mentally,” said White. “Riley is very deceptive. She’s got six different pitches and she can throw them all for strikes. She’s not a big strikeout pitcher right now but as she gets stronger and gains more experience, I think that will develop.”
Shopp began pitching when she was 8 years old, to vary degrees of success.
“A lot of my coaches thought I shouldn’t have pitched and I would’ve been a better catcher,” said Shopp, whose older sister Brianna was a catcher in the EP system, “but we stuck with it. I wasn’t the best when I was little, I’ve definitely come a long way.”
So far, in fact, that it was Shopp inside the circle when Eagle Point’s 14-and-under ASA softball program finished second in the state in 2014. With a screwball, curveball, riseball, fastball, drop ball and changeup in her arsenal, Shopp has plenty of ways to wreak havoc on an opposing batter’s approach and definitely has a high ceiling for her future.
“Most of the time with her it’s just been location more than anything else,” said White. “She has the ability to kind of move the ball in or away from both sides of the plate, which gives her a big advantage.”
Another big advantage, said Shopp, has been the help of senior Miyah Smith, who is 3-1 as EP’s other pitcher, and senior Sami Thompson, who was a first-team all-MWL catcher last year and lends tremendous value as a stabilizing influence.
“It definitely helps out a lot with Sami’s experience,” said Shopp. “I know she knows to make the right call and we’ve bonded since we were little. She was my catcher since ASA and we can just dig into a deeper level and it feels like it’s just me and her on the field sometimes. A lot of it for me relies on Sami’s part. She makes a lot of good calls and I really trust her with it.”
That trust is something that filters throughout the program, and has allowed the Eagles to put forth a very deep attack to keep from putting too much on the shoulders of only three or four girls.
“We’ve gotten production from all 16 of our girls,” said White. “This is the first time I’ve ever kept that many but they’ve all been producing. We’ve just had too many good players this year, it’s nice to have that depth.”
Thompson and senior shortstop Gillian Willis each lead the team with a .500 batting average, with Thompson boasting a team-best five home runs, 30 runs and 33 RBIs while Willis has missed a few games but still has 22 runs and 13 RBIs.
Shopp has provided another steady bat, hitting .461 with 11 doubles and four triples to go with 19 runs scored and 21 RBIs. Junior Ashley Oppelt, who was the extra-inning hero for EP against Marist on Tuesday, is batting .410 with 21 RBIs and Smith is hitting .360 with 21 RBIs.
“With this team I think we have a great chance against anybody,” said Shopp. “I’ve never felt such a strong bond between one group of girls; we’re not just teammates, we have bonded as family and that really makes our playing together better. We all trust each other and are best friends so I think we have a good chance of going really far this year.”
Reach reporter Kris Henry at 541-776-4488, email@example.com, www.facebook.com/krishenryMT or www.twitter.com/Kris_Henry