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Karlyn Pickens ready for ‘perfect match’ with Tennessee

Karlyn Pickens North Bumcombe Tennessee softball
Karlyn Pickens went 22-1 in her senior season at North Buncombe, striking out 402 batters. (Credit: Maya Carter/Asheville Citizen Times / USA TODAY NETWORK)

WEAVERVILLE, N.C. (BVM) – Karlyn Pickens is the No. 5-ranked player in the Class of 2022 by Extra Inning Softball, and throughout the last few years, she has proven why she has earned that distinction.

While most might take advantage of the notice and publicity that ranking brings, Pickens has remained proud, yet humble with her accomplishments, relishing the opportunity to represent herself, her school and her community.

“I stay humble and stay modest,” Pickens said. “Doing this is such a privilege and being able to represent my sport and my community is an honor … Going out there and inspiring young girls to do the same thing is really important. It’s cool to be in the spotlight, it’s cool to have the attention, but it’s really important to have good character more than anything.”

It’s the same mindset Pickens has taken with her throughout her athletic career. She’s played softball for the past 10 years, but the pitcher has also had strong careers in basketball and volleyball as well.

As a basketball player, the 6-foot-1 standout had an impressive career at North Buncombe High School, becoming a 1,000-point scorer for the Blackhawks last winter.

“Basketball was always kind of my fun sport,” Pickens said. “Being able to play, have fun with my friends and still meet those milestones was really amazing and special … Scoring my 1,000th point was a crazy thing. Just to be there, surrounded by my teammates and my coaches, it was just really special.”

Meanwhile, Pickens also picked up volleyball as she entered high school, excelling in that sport as well. Overall, she will cherish the memories she has made with her teammates the past four years.

“To be able to spend those past four years just growing with each other, being friends and getting to play on the court together was really special,” Pickens added. 

Karlyn Pickens North Buncombe Tennessee Volunteers softball
Karlyn Pickens credits playing multiple sports including basketball and volleyball for helping her to gain athleticism in the circle. (Credit: Maya Carter/Asheville Citizen Times / USA TODAY NETWORK)

As good as Pickens has been in basketball and volleyball, softball has remained her No. 1 sport. However, the athleticism she has gained from playing multiple sports has helped her tremendously in the circle. Ever since she first began playing softball, pitching has come naturally to the North Buncombe grad, and she continues to get better and better with a fastball in the 70s as well as a dominating, upward-spinning rise ball.

“When I started pitching, I just loved having that control over the game,” Pickens said. “I knew that that was something that I really wanted to put all my hard work and heart into. I think it’s worked out pretty well.”

Pickens’ talent was evident from the first time she started playing organized softball. Beginning in a local youth league, it wasn’t long before coaches realized she belonged in travel ball.

“I kind of stuck out like a sore thumb because I had a little better skillset than some of the girls out there,” Pickens said.

By the time she was 12, Pickens began playing for Carolina Elite, an organization she has stuck with to this day, and one that has meant everything to her game and development.

“It’s my softball family,” Pickens said. “Being able to grow with all those people and let them see how I’ve developed has been really great. I owe so much to the Carolina Elite organization and I wouldn’t be where I am without their help. They’ve really pushed me to the success I’ve had.”

Playing alongside girls who have the same mindset and goals as her has pushed Pickens to work even harder. That effort paid off as she began her high school career at North Buncombe.

As just a freshman, Pickens was a key cog for the Blackhawks, and earned conference player of the year honors in her first season. Heartbreakingly, Pickens and North Buncombe would lose the 2020 season due to the COVID-19 pandemic, missing out on what the pitcher thinks was a good chance at a state championship season.

However, North Buncombe came back motivated in Pickens’ junior season. In the circle, the standout pitcher shined, going 12-1 with a 0.41 ERA and 207 strikeouts across 85 innings, tossing one perfect game and four no-hitters. She also was a key contributor at the plate, hitting .519 while adding five home runs and 16 RBIs. While the Blackhawks would suffer a loss in the NCHSAA 3A regional final, it was still an incredibly successful season.

Karlyn Pickens North Buncombe Tennessee Volunteers softball
Karlyn Pickens helped North Buncombe softball reach new heights and also became a role model for future Blackhawk softball players in the process. (Courtesy: @RebeccaPicken11/Twitter)

“I was so proud of that team,” Pickens said. “Coming into that junior year, I was really developing as a pitcher. My mindset was right coming into the state playoffs and we played great as a team. It came down to the seventh inning in that regional game, and we didn’t come out on top, but that’s just the game of softball.”

After the season, Pickens was awarded with one of the top softball honors in her career thus far as she was named Gatorade North Carolina Softball Player of the Year.

“It’s an amazing accomplishment to have that with my name on it,” Pickens said. “It’s hung up in our high school gym, so that’s pretty cool to look at.”

This past spring, Pickens had one last chance to lead North Buncombe to state, and that was the main goal for her squad from day one.

“Going in, we all wanted that state championship and we set that goal very early on in the season that we were going to take things seriously and we were going to get there,” Pickens said. “I really wanted it bad to get to that state championship. That’s something as a high school athlete that you don’t get many shots at.”

Once again, the 6-foot-1 pitcher was special throughout the season, going 22-1 with a 0.22 ERA and an eye-popping 402 strikeouts. She threw 17 shutouts, eight no-hitters and five perfect games, and also contributed at the plate with eight home runs and 20 RBIs, batting .488.

North Buncombe made a deep postseason run, one that was kept alive in a wild 13-inning pitcher’s duel where Pickens racked up 29 strikeouts, the eighth most in NCHSAA history. Throwing 164 pitches in a one-hit shutout, Pickens closed out the game in the bottom of the 13th after scoring the winning run earlier in the frame thanks to a base hit by freshman Molly Clark.

Karlyn Pickens North Buncombe Tennessee Volunteers softball
Karlyn Pickens helped the Blackhawks reach their first state finals series in program history. (Credit: Maya Carter/Asheville Citizen Times / USA TODAY NETWORK)

“That game was definitely crazy,” Pickens said. “I had so much adrenaline going. Once we got past the seventh inning I was like, ‘This is going to be a pitching duel and I’m not going to lose.’ I wasn’t getting tired at all, I think my coach was saying my speed was going up … We did everything we could to pull out the win.”

With the win over Crest, the Blackhawks made their second consecutive regional final, and carried their momentum all the way to the state title series for the first time in program history. They fell just short of a championship, but they accomplished what they set out to do while also representing their team and community in a positive light.

“Western North Carolina has never had a softball team that’s made it that far,” Pickens said. “Just being able to leave our mark and show that the mountain girls can play softball too, and hopefully encourage other young girls and athletes to play softball and work hard at their sport, is something that I take a lot of pride in. It reminded me of the real reason we were out there. To represent North Buncombe softball like that was really special.

“I just loved high school softball so much. Being able to be part of the team and represent my community was just such an honor. Our team has come really far these past four years, and I’m just lucky to have been a part of that and put western North Carolina softball on the map.”

With her tremendous high school career wrapped up, Pickens is now focusing on the next steps of her softball journey. This summer, she will play in the Premier Girls Fastpitch High School All-American game on July 30, televised live on ESPNU. The North Buncombe grad also had the chance to play in the contest last year which was an experience she will never forget.

“That was once in a lifetime,” Pickens said. “That’s one of the coolest things I’ve been able to experience during my softball career so far … It was just such an honor and a privilege to be able to do that.”

From there, the next step in her journey will take her to Knoxville to play for the Tennessee Volunteers

Obviously a highly sought-after commit, the recruiting process was overwhelming at times, but also a rewarding experience for Pickens as she found the perfect fit.

“It was kind of overwhelming,” Pickens said. “But it was a really cool experience being able to talk with a lot of cool colleges and coaches. That was such an honor to be on the phone with them. 

“Tennessee was just the perfect match. It just felt right. To be a Lady Vol is such an honor, and the true meaning of that is amazing as well. I’m so excited and privileged to be able to go to Tennessee, leave my mark and play with that amazing team. I cannot wait.”

Karlyn Pickens Tennessee Volunteers softball
Karlyn Pickens will look to make an immediate impact on the Tennessee softball program as part of the nation’s No. 7-ranked recruiting class. (Courtesy: @PickensKarlyn/Twitter)

One of Pickens’ biggest role models in the sport is Monica Abbott, another tall former Tennessee pitcher who has since competed in the Olympics with Team USA. Pickens would love to follow the same path someday, but right now, she remains focused on the present.

As the standout pitcher heads to Knoxville, she joins the No. 7-ranked recruiting class in the nation. It features multiple players who Pickens has already built relationships with through travel ball, and some other truly elite talents throughout the country. Pickens has found success at every stop of her career so far, and with this SEC softball power, it should be no different.

“I think this class is going to really make a difference,” Pickens said. “There’s five of us on my travel team right now and we’ve all built that relationship together. We’re excited to get to play with each other at a higher level. I think just being able to experience that together and to work hard to leave a mark at Tennessee will be really fun.”

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