SMYRNA — If she thinks about it, Payton Dixon can still hear the moment.
The Smyrna High softball pitcher had just fielded a hard-hit grounder and wheeled to throw to second base.
“I can remember Lexi (Moore) screaming at me to turn the double play,” said Dixon, referring to the Eagles’ shortstop, “because I was moving a little slow.”
But Dixon made the throw, Moore made the relay to first baseman Julia Thuer for the game-ending double play and, a moment later, Smyrna’s players were mobbing Dixon as they celebrated their 1-0 win over Caravel in the 2019 DIAA state championship game.
That moment was certainly a highlight-reel one for Dixon and her teammates as they won back-to-back state crowns in 2018 and ‘19.
Dixon had a lot of great moments in her Smyrna career. A regular since her freshman year, the left-hander made first-team All-State for the second straight season as a senior this spring.
On Wednesday, Dixon will line up with the state’s other top seniors in the Blue-Gold All-Star Game. The contest is slated for 6 p.m. at Dover Little League.
Dixon, though, hopes to still have a lot of softball left in front of her. She was an early signee with NCAA Division I South Florida.
Bulls’ coach Ken Eriksen said he has high hopes for Dixon. He said “her stuff is fun to watch.”
“If you were to describe ‘smooth as silk’ that would be Payton’s motion to the plate,” Eriksen said in a USF press release. “Combining that with her movement and tenacity on the mound I am reminded of a pitcher that is a melding of (South Florida pitchers) Lindsay Richardson, Sara Nevins, Erica Nunn, and Georgina Corrick. I am looking forward to watch Payton develop and gain experience against a very competitive Division-I schedule.”
Smyrna coach Nicki Shirey knew she could rely on Dixon right from the start. Even with another All-State pitcher in Jessica Anderson, she gave Dixon a few innings in most of the Eagles’ games as a freshman.
In Smyrna’s 16-7 win over Appoquinimink in the state finals, Dixon pitched three innings in the middle of the contest.
“She definitely was very composed for her age,” said Shirey. “She doesn’t show a lot of emotion. I think she has a huge presence on the mound and that’s taken her a long way.”
“I was nervous but I was excited,” said Dixon. “It was my first time stepping on the field. (Being a pitcher) it was a little more nerve-wracking.
“It definitely boosted me,” she said about pitching as a freshman. “Now I knew to push myself because somebody was ahead of me.”
She responded by going 16-2 with a 0.68 ERA while also hitting .412 at the plate. Of course that season also finished with a second state championship for the Eagles.
“It was just me,” Dixon about being the main pitcher. “I just knew I had to get it done on my own. There was nobody else behind me.”
Maybe the only big regret of Dixon’s career is that Smyrna didn’t get to play in 2020 because of the pandemic. The Eagles had enough returning players that they would have been a leading contender to capture a third-straight state title.
Moore (Delaware) and Thuer (Monmouth), who were both all-conference players as college freshmen this spring, were seniors last spring.
“It was awful,” Dixon said about having last season canceled. “I don’t know, we had a team bond going for three years.”
This past spring, Dixon had to be the backbone of a squad that was more or less starting over with a new group of players.
While the Eagles fell short of the state finals, they did go 14-8, win the Henlopen North and reach the DIAA state quarterfinals.
Dixon threw five shutouts — including two in the state tournament — and struck out as many as 16 batters in a game twice. She finished with 156 strikeouts in 121.2 innings while posting an ERA of 1.32.
The Eagles went 5-4 in one-run games.
Shirey said sometimes Dixon’s hitting abilities got overlooked. She hit .412 with 20 RBI while batting cleanup for Smyrna this spring.
“Her bat was just as big as having her in the circle,” said Shirey. “Her experience definitely held the team together. It was nice for the girls to have somebody who had the maturity of playing in big games. The team was filled with sophomores who missed their freshman year playing.
“Payton was the one they needed to look up to. ... It kept the girls settled. They had a lot of confidence in her.”
With her college career now ready to get started, Dixon said it’s a dream come true to have earned a scholarship to a big program like South Florida. This is what she’s worked so hard for.
“It’s definitely a good feeling,” said Dixon, who plans to major in elementary education. “It’s what I always wanted. That was my big goal — playing ‘D-I’ softball.”