May 11, 2018 11:18:20 AM
Scott Walters - [email protected]
If Aspen Wesley dominated a sport like football or basketball, almost all sports fans would know her name.
Instead, the Neshoba Central High School junior dominates in the rather quiet world of fast-pitch softball.
However, playing for a sixth-straight state championship and pitching for the nation's No. 1 team is a pretty good situation and not one to be taken for granted.
"Sometimes, it's a little humbling that all of this is happening for a girl living in Philadelphia, Mississippi," Wesley said. "That's not where normally a story like this would take place."
Indeed the story is being penned in a Mississippi town with a population of less than 10,000. It also has several more chapters to be written.
On Thursday night at Mississippi State's Nusz Park, Wesley pitched her 11th no-hitter of the season to lead Neshoba Central to a 3-0 victory against Pearl River Central in Game 1 of the best-of-three Mississippi High School Activities Association (MHSAA) Class 5A State championship series.
Wesley has played a major role in four of Neshoba Central's five state championships. It's easy to see why. She has more than 1,300 strikeouts in a little more than 700 innings on the varsity level. She had 18 Thursday night.
Neshoba Central coach Trae Embry was in his second season at the school when Wesley showed up as seventh-grader for a tryout.
How quickly was Embry won over?
"It took about five minutes," Embry said. "I had not seen anything like it, especially coming from a seventh-grader."
Embry knew what we had. Wesley didn't know what she possessed.
"We were playing Oak Grove," Wesley said. "Coach told me to go in and pitch. I didn't think he was serious. I went out there and the first batter up was in 12th grade. It's like, 'What am I doing out here?' I got the first out and a few of the nerves went away."
From there, the Neshoba Central program was transformed.
"She gets better each season," said Embry, whose softball program has won 11-straight titles between slow- and fast-pitch seasons. "The average person sees this game tonight and doesn't know where she came from or how good she is going to be. However, she is still very much a work in progress. She has an incredible work ethic and really the sky is the limit."
One person who plans to be part of that future is MSU softball coach Vann Stuedeman said. Considered one of the nation's premier pitching coaches, Stuedeman already has received a verbal commitment from Wesley.
While the MSU coaches weren't present Thursday due to the team's participation in the Southeastern Conference tournament, Wesley was emotional about her first chance to pitch in her future home.
"We were on the bus coming back (from winning a game in the South State championship series) and one of my teammates didn't know our next series was at Mississippi State," Wesley said. "I couldn't believe that because I have had this day circled the whole season. Pitching in summer camps here is one thing. Pitching for a state championship here is another thing."
MSU got in on Wesley early. She has been to several games this season and is giddy about planning for the future.
"One of my favorite players is (MSU freshman catcher) Mia Davidson," Wesley said. "I love how she plays the game. Don't think I am not excited about what the two of us can do one day as pitcher and catcher. I just love everything about Mississippi State. Coach Stuedeman, (assistant) coach (Samantha) Ricketts, (assistant) coach (Tyler) Bratton, the new softball field, the campus. This is going to be home. I don't have any doubt about the program we can become."
That is the future. At 7:30 tonight, Wesley will be in the circle with a state championship on the line.
For the season, Wesley is now 22-0 with a 0.15 earned run average. She has 16 shutouts. She has allowed only three earned runs and has struck out 303.
Overall, Neshoba Central is 33-0 and has 38-straight wins dating back to last season.
Any good pitcher still needs some offensive help. Wesley has that covered too with a .418 average.
Embry and Wesley are quick to praise the other players on the roster. Then Embry goes back to the No. 1 talking point.
"We actually have a couple of strong pitchers," Embry said. "Offensively, we can swing the bats and we really make smart decisions on the bases. Still it comes back to Aspen, and always does. She is a dominant player. You can't help but be amazed."
Wesley feels the same way.
"The togetherness of this team is what makes it special," Wesley said. "There is an expectation when I go into the circle and I get all of that. The pressure usually doesn't bother me, but I admit I was a little nervous tonight, pitching here for the first time in front of a lot of people. In the end, it's still the same game and it's something I have done for a long time because of the love. There is a strong desire to be the best. Winning state championships are never easy. Some people may take what we are doing for granted, but we don't."
Neshoba Central is the No. 1 team in the nation in this week's National Fastpitch Coaches Association (NFCA) Top 25. It is No. 5 in the Max Preps Xcellent 25 Writers Poll.
Embry again enters into coach-speak mode to downplay the accomplishment. He then realizes the special nature of this season.
"From the first practice, we have talked about being No. 1 on the last day of the season," Embry said. "The goal has been to make sure the girls don't focus on anything else. However, it is a big deal. A Mississippi school is ranked No. 1 in the nation. I can't shy away from that. It's a humbling accomplishment. A group of people thinks you play the game better than anyone else does. That's special."
Wesley will start Game 2 of the series with a 108-4 record as a high school pitcher. Her last loss was to Saltillo on May 2, 2017.
Like most softball teams, the Pearl River Central players had several chants from the dugout. One -- "swing that bat, hit that ball" -- was simple.
The first part was easy. Wesley made the second seem impossible.
Scott Walters is a sports writer for The Dispatch. He can be reached at [email protected] Follow him on Twitter @dispatchscott.
Scott is sports copy editor and reporter