Rocky Mount Academy hosted a baseball and softball game on an early-spring afternoon.

Athletic director Gayle High was making her way back and forth between the game when she found it was hard to pry herself away from the softball field. The Eagles had a new pitcher who was dealing.

“I think I counted five strikeouts in a row,” High said on March 6. “This girl is really, really good and she’s only a freshman.”

Emily Winstead was the talk of that chilly afternoon, and the chatter never did taper off. Winstead, the Telegram’s softball pitcher of the year, turned in one of the more dominant performances in the circle over the course of a season in recent memory.

The freshman pitcher immediately made RMA a power in the NCISAA division, and guided the Eagles to an 18-3 record in a season that ended one game away from the state championship series.

RMA lost in that semifinal, 2-0, to Freedom Christtian Academy in 16 innings. Winstead pitched all 16 frames and recorded a dizzying amount of strikeouts — 33 in all, good for an average of more than two per inning.

“That game was a lot of fun,” Winstead said. “I’m actually close friends with the other pitcher we faced so it was fun to play her because we don't get to do that often. But it was fun to know that your team is out there fighting for 16 innings.

“And even though we lost, I’m very proud of where my team ended. Sure, I would really like for us to win a state championship, but looking back I was proud of how me and my team played together and bonded.”

Eye-popping numbers like that were commonplace for Winstead, who recorded the most strikeouts in the state with 293, and her 0.46 earned run average was good enough for third in the state.

Winstead finished with a 16-3 record and she only allowed eight earned runs throughout the season across 123 innings pitched. She gave up 30 hits, walked 22 batters, and tossed seven no-hitters, including one perfect game.

She also had five games where she allowed two hits or fewer.

An all-state and all-conference selection, Winstead was also a handful with the bat. She smacked a team-high six home runs to go with 29 RBIs.

“It was a really fun season,” Winstead said. “Coming in, as a freshman, at some parts it was kind of stressful because you’re new to school. But I got comfortable out there pretty quick and my teammates made everything easy for me so it wasn't as stressful as you might think.”

In a recent interview, Winstead talks about her decision to commit to a college, how she approaches her pitching workouts, and what it’s like to throw to her older sister who is a catcher for the Eagles as part of the Telegram’s All-Area series.

Even though you just finished your freshman year, you’ve already been committed to a college for a year now. How did you come to that decision?

That’s right, I’m committed to UNC Wilmington. I committed there going into my eighth grade year. And when I committed there was a lot of people that thought it was early. But I fell in love with the atmosphere, the team and the coaches and I thought that would be the best moving forward. It’s relaxing, knowing I don’t have to worry about it anymore. and stressful at the same time.

How did you start pitching? Did you always focus on that more than hitting?

Pitching takes up a lot of time, so even though I really enjoy hitting because it’s fun, I had to choose. My travel coach when we were little lined us up and had people throw to a catcher, and whoever threw the hardest got to pitch. I threw the hardest that day and I fell in love with it.

You were able to overmatch a lot of hitters because of your velocity. Is that something you felt comfortable relying on to get outs?

Well, I really jumped up in my pitching speed I would say two years ago. Then, I wasn’t throwing hard and I was struggling with velocity. So me and my pitching coach worked on getting to the point where I was throwing more efficiently.

How did you get to that point?

We worked to find a way to for me to be more fluent in my motion. I had to strengthen my body in the way I needed so I could take advantage of my back and my legs, instead of just my arm. Now, my whole body works together when I throw.

So even though you found success right away, was there an adjustment period for you as a freshman throwing to varsity hitters?

I definitely had to be a little more careful to where I was locating my pitches. I couldn’t throw as many balls over the plate, and I had to rely on my spin more. Whoever was catching me this year did a good job of being comfortable calling spin pitches and keeping me on track.

What was it like playing on the same team with your older sister (sophomore) Elizabeth?

It was fun. We play on the same travel team now, but playing in high school was different. She catches me and I notice that I am a little bit more relaxed when she does. She could just give me a look and I’ll know what she means. She doesn’t get to catch me that often in travel ball, so when she catches me in school ball it’s a whole different connection.

Honorable mention

Carrigan Ewers, Southern Nash

Kierstin Cooper, Southern Nash

Jenna McKenney, Northern Nash

Taylor Hobgood, SouthWest Edgecombe

Deanna Staton, Rocky Mount Prep