Riverbend vs Stafford softball

Riverbend's Alexi Bensen pitches against the Stafford Indians at Riverbend High School in Spotsylvania, Va. on April 27, 2018. The Bears won 10-5.

She gets the ball to the plate in a hurry, but Alexi Benson had to wait before getting her turn to dominate from the pitcher’s mound.

Benson arrived at Riverbend High School three years ago, expecting to earn a spot on the varsity softball team as a freshman. There was just one problem: the Bears already had a dominant pitcher, Mallory Ratcliff, who would be named Region 6B player of the year as a junior that season.

Coach Scott Thomas recognized Benson’s talent, but figured it would do her more good to pitch for the junior varsity team than to sit behind Ratcliff.

“I was upset, but I knew it was best for the team, and for me in the years to come,” Benson said. “Thomas let me practice with the varsity, so that helped.

“And I love Mallory. She’s an awesome teammate. It was probably better that I knew her.”

Benson made the varsity as a sophomore, but played out of position at second base. She finally moved to the mound as a junior last spring, after Ratcliff had moved on to pitch for Division II Mount Olive (N.C.) College.

She made up for lost time as the Bears finished 17–2 and won the Commonwealth District tournament title. Benson went 15–2 and struck out 124 batters as a junior, compiled a 2.70 ERA and also batted .403 with team-leading totals of five home runs and 26 RBIs. She shared regional player of the year honors with Thomas Dale’s Leigha Hill.

“She could have started [as a freshman] against 80 percent of the teams we played,” Thomas said. “But when you have a kid ahead of you who’s that dominant, it didn’t make sense to make her sit.

“... It’s always the best when your best player is also your hardest worked. She puts in the extra work, and that’s a testament to how good this kid is.”

Benson, who said “I don’t ever remember not playing [softball],” has always been a hard thrower; Thomas estimated her fastball tops 60 mph. But she used her freshman season to work on her supplemental pitches.

“It definitely helped me develop my pitches,” she said, crediting her father, Brian, with facilitating her progress through video analysis. “At this level, the best hitters can time a fastball. So I worked on my spins and movement--things I couldn’t have worked on with the varsity.”

As a result, when Benson finally got her shot on the mound at the varsity level, she was a more complete pitcher.

Thomas said her command and repertoire is improved, and she struck out 13 North Stafford batters in Tuesday’s season-opening 5–3 victory over North Stafford in the Commonwealth District tournament quarterfinals. The Bears will face Mountain View in Thursday’s semifinals at Stafford.

“She makes my job a lot easier,” Thomas said. “I’m a former pitcher, and I wish I could throw as hard as she does. If she is in a zone, nobody can touch her. It’s not often you have two pitchers of that caliber come through a system.”

As memorable as the 2018 season was for Benson and the Bears, it ended ignominiously. Manchester touched her for five first-inning runs and chased her in the third inning of a 10–1 victory in the regional semifinals, denying the Bears their first state tournament appearance.

All-district shortstop Hannah Marsteller graduated, but Benson is one of six starters returning to a team that wants to take the next step. Senior third baseman Baylor Dunlap (a first-team all-district pick in 2018) and sophomore center field Kaylee DeJesus (a second-team choice) are other key cogs.

“Hannah was an amazing player. No one can fill her shoes,” said Benson, who has signed with Division II Mercy (N.Y.) College. “But we’re all so close, and with or without her, we’re doing well.”

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Steve DeShazo: 374-5443

sdeshazo@freelancestar.com

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