Sorry, you need to enable JavaScript to visit this website.

Have no fear, Wheeler is here

Simsboro pitching ace taking game to a new level
Wednesday, April 3, 2024
Article Image Alt Text

Photo by Darrell James

As the afternoon sun burned and blistered those in attendance at Choudrant High softball field, something felt out of the ordinary in the annual district matchup between Simsboro and Choudrant.

The game was close, closer than recent memory between the Lincoln Parish rivals on the softball diamond — locked in a 0-0 battle through two innings and only 1-0 the rest of the way.

The Lady Aggies managed just 4 hits and needed a complete-game shutout from Holly Bennett to seal the win.

It was a far cry from the 2023 matchups that had Choudrant sweep the season series 36-5 and 35-1 in the two previous seasons as well.

What changed to make the 2024 meeting as close as it’s ever been? It was obvious in the circle for the Lady Tigers, with junior Carlei Wheeler spinning and shouting her way to 9 strikeouts, only 4 hits and 1 earned run allowed to give her team its best chance in over eight years to knock off Choudrant.

Moral victories don’t count in the power points, but Simsboro head coach Payton Bond said postgame Wheeler’s performance against Choudrant, and frankly all season, has given the Lady Tigers confidence they never had before — confidence they can hang with anyone with Wheeler taking the ball.

“When she’s in the circle, I like my chances,” Bond said. “ We don’t have to do a lot. We can play our game, and if we have one or two things happen, that’s all it takes because she takes it to that next level. I’m not scared of some of these big schools that other schools wouldn’t take a chance to play. We’re right there with Ruston and Choudrant – some of these schools that, in the past, have dominated us. With her, we feel like we can play with them. That’s big for a small school like us to know we can compete.”

In March, Wheeler posted a 3.13 ERA over 66 1/3 innings pitched, striking out 133 batters and allowing just 23 earned runs. Over her last five outings (28 2/3 innings) — including Choudrant on Friday — Wheeler has locked in for a 0.96 ERA with 58 strikeouts, only 11 hits and 3 earned runs allowed.

On the season, she holds a 3.88 ERA with 163 strikeouts, 55 hits allowed and 35 earned runs in over 81 innings pitched.

For good measure, she’s also hitting .532 with 26 RBIs, 4 home runs, 8 doubles, and 4 triples.

“The stats don’t lie. She’s come a long way,” Bond said. “I’m proud of her for that.”

Wheeler’s growth into a new level this season coincides with the program’s overall development as well, contending for a firstround playoff home game and a top-10 seed if the cards fall right — leaving Bond to classify his ace as someone who “changes a program’s culture.”

Wheeler, a Louisiana Christian verbal commit, doesn’t put that much weight on her own shoulders. All she thinks about is performing to her best — free from the burden of expectations or fear of failure.

Does she want to win? More than anything. But unlike her sophomore season in 2023, Wheeler doesn’t just believe in her own abilities and asks more than she needs to of herself. She knows her team around her is now built to act as a safety net, rather than a liability like year’s past. With that on her side, there’s freedom in how she can throw.

“To be honest, I just go out there and play. I don’t think anything of it. I just go out there and play,” Wheeler said. “I focus, but I let it play out and I try to do all I can as a player. I’d rather enjoy playing than having to worry about, ‘I gotta do this and this.’ I gotta approach it in a calm way. “It feels nice having a coach hold girls accountabl e for things they need to do and see that we’re winning more than what we thought we would be. Our game against Choudrant, that was the closest we’ve ever played with them, and that doesn’t happen by accident.”

Over the last two seasons, Wheeler has 22 games with double digit strikeouts, including this year’s 17- strikeout performance in a win over top 20 Haynesville and 15 punchouts over No. 9 Holden.

With a resume filled with all-district selections, honorable mention all-state, lofty strikeout numbers, and more, Wheeler’s ability to attack batters and deliver has given the younger players on Simsboro something to model.

Bond, who’s coached Wheeler since she was an eighth grader in 2021, said when internal standards begin to rise thanks to Wheeler’s performance history, a program is on the verge of breaking through.

There’s something to chase, someone to view as a true leader in their actions and play — not just by upperclassmen designation.

“A lot of our young girls, they’ve known coming into our program who she was to our team and knows the success she’s had and that’s something they aspire to be,” Bond said.

“They ask her questions and learn and she’s done a good job pulling our young girls aside over the course of the season when something myself or the assistant coaches say may not hit home or they understand it, she’ll tell them what they need to do or show them how she’s been so good. That’s big for us,” he added.