state champs

this got a little lengthy, but it is mainly just so I remember all of it. 

Last week I told you some very big news. And in that post I mentioned that my softball girls made it all the way to the state tournament-- for the first time in school history!

But let me back up.

Four years ago when I got the call that led me back to my alma mater [no, Jennifer, that is not a song], I knew at that point I was also going to be the assistant high school softball coach alongside my former coach.

Blythe helping Coach Blythe at softball camp this summer 

My first year we lost our first round of district play in the bottom of the TENTH inning! Paige pitched her heart out and we all cried and hugged the seniors and then I wrote this.  My second year we faced the team's nemesis, that hadn't been beat since my senior year. Again we fell and again we hugged seniors and said our goodbyes. Last year we made it to the District Championship game, like Coach Blythe had done so many times before, but just couldn't get everything to work for us and we lost on a very cold day. And once again we huddled in the outfield, clinging to our seniors just a little bit longer, Coach giving his farewell speech to the team over a really great season.

every year we get "on the ball" necklaces and the team votes after every game for who was most "on the ball" that game, and then that girl wear it until the next game 

first day of practice for summer softball
a hot August practice

So this year when we made it to the District Championship game again, in the back of our minds coach and I prepared our speeches, and readied our arms to embrace our seniors. In his thirteen years as head coach, Coach Blythe had made it to the championship game 8 times [I think]. That's a lot of times to lose the championship game. And I don't know how many times the team that won our district made it all the way to state. All three years that he was my coach we made it that far and lost that final game by one run. I wanted so badly to give him that title. And here I was, 10 years later, with him again, stepping onto the diamond for another chance at a district title.

The girls all knew that it had never been done in school history, plus we were playing the team that knocked us out the previous year, so they had apt motivation.

And they played their hearts out. I was an emotional wreck from the get-go. I blame it on the baby. Either way: I cried when our pitcher, Katie, struck out a girl and got excited, as she never shows emotion. I cried when our catcher slid into second and sprained her ankle. I cried when one of our girls, who had been in a bit of a hitting slump, creamed one in the gap for an RBI double. I kept my sunglasses on because I didn't want anyone to notice my emotion, but these girls were just making me so proud. The final out was made and the curse was broken! Coach and I jumped around and hugged and, at that point, their was no reason to hide the tears. We lingered around soaking it all in. And in the outfield huddle after the game, we didn't know what to say to the girls. Coach's typical yet heartfelt, "I'm going to miss the seniors" speech wasn't necessary.

We kept practicing and Wednesday we traveled about an hour away for our first ever appearance in a Sectional game. The girls said they were nervous, but they sure didn't play like it. Because our catcher had been injured, she was stuck on crutches calling pitches in the dugout. We juggled around our entire outfield, moved our center fielder behind the plate, and our batting line up was totally rearranged, as our number four batter was now out of commission. Winning districts was great, but winning a sectional game for the first time with five players out of their normal positions?  Was that possible? Before too long it was 6-0,  and the girls left no doubt that, in their regular spots or not, they wanted to keep playing softball. With the final out we were up 8-4, and the tears that had been present the previous Saturday for me were now dry. I was in shock. This team just kept surprising me.

The following Saturday we had drawn a home game, but lost the flip which made us visitors on our scoreboard. We were playing a team that has gone to state I don't even know how many times. We'd already made school history, but winning a quarter-final game and getting to travel to the state tournament? That would take the cake. We were seven innings away from making it happen. We were again playing without our starting catcher and employing the same line up as the sectional game. They jumped on them early and didn't look back. Not only were we going to state, but they won in no-doubt fashion with a shut-out: 7-0. Our "good-bye seniors" speech would have to be postponed yet again. The entire town was out on the field with us to celebrate afterwards. This was the first time in school history [except for one girls' track team…that Coach Blythe coached] that an entire TEAM was going to state.

So last Thursday morning we packed into the gym, received an excellent pep talk, lots of cheers and well wishes, and goodie bags packed to the brim. Then we headed out the front doors to more applause and piled on the school bus with "STATE BOUND" painted on the side. As we pulled out of the parking lot the entire student body, kindergarten through seniors, lined the street. The further we drove, we noticed more people along the sidewalks: bank employees waving signs, insurance agents, and so many more. For miles, as the police lights flashed in front and behind us, we read signs that people in town had posted wishing us luck and telling us how proud they were. Coach and I looked at other, with tears in our eyes, and I choked out, "This is the stuff I can't handle!"

in the bags the parents packed for us

We settled in, digging through our bags of goodies and laughing at all the notes that had been left. We stopped in a small town outside of Springfield that was allowing us to practice on their field through some connection of Coach's. And if I'm being really honest? The girls did not look great. They were swinging at bad pitches and making over throws. We chalked it up to the bus ride and excitement [or "excitedness" as Jade described it], and jumped back on the bus to travel the final thirty miles into Springfield. After checking into our hotel, we took the girls to the complex where they would be playing the next two days. I kept thinking that I didn't want to overdramatize anything, but it really was just like a movie [think Hoosiers when they enter the gym and the coach takes out his tape measure to show them it's the same size…that was us!]. We walked around as the sun set over the field, snapping pictures and making jokes.

walking into complex

Friday rolled around and game one was a doozy. The stands were packed with people from home, which didn't surprise me much at this point, as I had seen their support all a long. Luckily we had flipped for the home team, as it proved to be a game in which you wanted to be the home team. We played most of the game tied at 3-3… all the way into extra innings. We made base running errors that were pretty uncharacteristic for us at this point. But our pitcher stayed strong, and theirs got nervous. And we jumped on her. And we scored in the bottom of the ninth! It may not have been the prettiest game we have played, but we were headed to the championship game Saturday!

tradition: team prayer before every game

All morning the girls were bored. They were in their jerseys, their face paint was on, and they just wanted to play ball. To make matters worse, our game was slated for 4 o'clock; they were nearly two hours behind schedule. So we slowly warmed the girls up, and when the field was ready, so were we. We headed into the dugout below the stands of our great crowd, and the hunt was on.

We were playing  a team that had 16 state appearances under its belt. 16! to our none. But the girls didn't let it phase them. When our center fielder caught a pop fly for the third out of the first inning in a rather un-fundamental fashion and came off the field laughing about it, I knew our jitters were out and we were loose, having fun, and ready to play our kind of ball. And that we did. Nearly error free, our girls kept making plays and getting outs. Finally in the bottom of the third we broke the zeros on the scoreboard and put up two runs. Those runs would have to sustain us the rest of the game. We never scored again. But we didn't let the other team score either. As the last ball was hit to our second baseman and she squeezed it for the final out, we let out our breaths, our crowd erupted, and the celebration was on.

Our girls jumped all over each other, tears of utter joy streaming down their faces. Coach and I embraced as our tears flowed freely too. We were state champs!

For me, being able to see Coach get that title was the best. He has put over a decade of his life into this program: building up girls, drilling fundamentals, coaching summer teams and hosting camps, and working the field to perfection. In that moment,  I hugged him as he, nearly breathless and speechless said, "Oh my gosh…oh my gosh, Kels…", my heart swelled-- yes, our girls had just played a nearly perfect game of softball and worked their tails off to get there, but behind them was this guy, and he deserved this moment.

We collected ourselves the best we could and headed out to receive medals and trophies. I kept glancing at our girls, and then at Coach; to be a part of this group was something special. As they hung medals on the second place team, I looked at Coach again and he just shook his head in disbelief. I returned the sentiment and said, "I know, I just wanted to beat King City at Districts!"

The rest of the night was a blur of hugs and tears and congratulations. Our team had made history.

When we walked into the complex earlier that day, we could hear the awards being announced for the Class 3 game. As I walked in I heard, "And congratulations to the …[whatever team it was]…on an excellent season and finishing second in the state of Missouri." I instantly got a lump in my throat. I realized at that moment that finishing second in the state of Missouri was the worst we were going to do. But luckily we didn't settle for just that.

The thing that makes me the most proud though is who our girls remained to be through it all. Here is a little something to help you understand: Our catcher, who returned to play Wednesday before the tournament started Friday, was taped and braced up. Two of our girls had broken shoe laces and had to tape their laces around their shoes to get them to stay tight. Our center fielder fixed her broken glove with a screw. Our third basemen had holes in the knees of her pants. I had a hole in my tennis shoes where our short stop cleated me. Coach's sunglasses broke a long time ago but he still wears them. One of our DH's pants had to be sewn up about 4 times throughout the season. Right before we walked into the dugout for the championship game, one of our girls picked up her ball bag and it ripped out. Our team equipment bag stopped being able to zip shut half way through the season. Our jerseys are four years old and wearing pretty thin.

a sign that a little girl made and she wanted me to hang it up in the dugout for the girls.

But there we were… in the state championship game. Literally held together by tape and guts, facing a team that wore completely different [Underarmor] jerseys on Saturday than they had worn on Friday, not having a team parent volunteer to do the laundry the night before like us. But that was us, just a humble little team that wasn't embarrassed to be riding a non-chartered bus or have holes in our pants. That's not what mattered. What mattered was softball. And having fun. And working hard. And being a team.

And that is why, I think, we walked away with a state championship.

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Anne said...

There is something so universal about small town sports. You had me tearing up and reminiscing even though softball was not my sport of choice. :-) Such a great experience. Congratulations!

Kyle Carroll said...

Good words Kels. I think your right. If it is possible to some how roll Remember The Titans and Hoosiers into one unbelievable, but real life softball season story, these young ladies did it. Congratulations to Coach, you, the team, former team mates and Wolverines fans far and wide for sticking with it and making it happen. What a great group to have represent the school district and the sport. They were the best. And they have the trophy to prove it!


Pink Pamalamma said...

What an awesome story! Congrats on the big win!!

momiss said...

Shared this on FB and sang your praises. Absolutely loved this story and especially the "back" story, or real truth. Which you excel at, woman. Keep up the good work!