2009-05-15 / Sports

No champions, but plenty of winners

Patience, persistence, and practice pay off for the Hammond Skyhawk softball team.
Story and Photos by Cathy Cobbs

The 2009 Hammond Skyhawk softball team: (l- r) First row- Elizabeth Davidson, Jenny Priester, and Katherine Dobbs; Second row- Coach Ruth Harnett, Caroline Harris, Helen Walkup, Syndey Beasley, Anne Elise Goudelock, Caroline Penland, Grace Cobbs, Parker Herring, Rachel Hanna and Brooks Burnside; Third row- Coach Ken Beasley. Not pictured: Hannah Goudelock The 2009 Hammond Skyhawk softball team: (l- r) First row- Elizabeth Davidson, Jenny Priester, and Katherine Dobbs; Second row- Coach Ruth Harnett, Caroline Harris, Helen Walkup, Syndey Beasley, Anne Elise Goudelock, Caroline Penland, Grace Cobbs, Parker Herring, Rachel Hanna and Brooks Burnside; Third row- Coach Ken Beasley. Not pictured: Hannah Goudelock On May 4, in its last regular season contest, Hammond School won its first softball game of the year. It was against the Ben Lippen Falcons.

For senior third baseman Jenny Priester, who has played for the Skyhawks since eighth grade, it was her first win ever.

A program that had so little interest that it didn't even field a varsity squad last year has come a long way, thanks to a new coach, who instilled a sense of hope in a team that had endured years of crushing "mercy- rule" defeats.

"I had concerns about being able to field a team at all, let alone a varsity and junior varsity squad after inheriting a program that had only nine players on JV," said Hammond coach Ken Beasley. "Depending with whom I spoke, the last time Hammond had won a softball game varied from three to five years. Some of our players didn't know we played seven innings because they usually only played three or four before the mercy rule was invoked."

Jenny Priester hugs Hammond Coach Ken Beasley after the team's first victory this year. It was also the team's first win in five years. Jenny Priester hugs Hammond Coach Ken Beasley after the team's first victory this year. It was also the team's first win in five years. Beasley, who built his junior and senior squads mostly through word of mouth, said he knew that a commitment from Priester was the key to getting a varsity team together. He also knew it would be a tough sales job.

Jenny's mom, Michele, said she wasn't even sure if her daughter would take Beasley's phone call.

"She was very upset when she heard a rumor that he was going to call her," Michele Priester remembered. "She said, 'I don't want to play, and I hope he doesn't call me.' When the phone rang, she was saying, 'No, no,' and I said, 'Well, you have to tell him yourself.'"

"When I first asked Jenny to play softball, I think she had reservations," Beasley said. "I can only imagine the thoughts going through her head - 'No wins, no fun, time commitment, the possible ridicule of not winning a game again.'"

Beasley said Priester asked her about the team's prospects, and he was honest.

"I said 'I have no idea,'" he recalled of that conversation. "I did tell her we would try to be competitive, but that we would have fun. I told her we were fortunate to have a pitcher from Atlanta, Grace Cobbs, transfer to the school and so I thought that would be an area of improvement."

After a long conversation, Priester agreed to give it a trial run, and extracted a promise from Beasley that she could quit if she didn't like what she saw at the first practice.

"She came home from practice that day and said, 'I learned more in one practice than all my years on a Hammond softball field,'" Michele Priester said. "And then I knew she was hooked."

Priester accepted the role of player- recruiter, and she and Beasley assembled a varsity squad that included several players who had little experience on the field and several who never touched a softball, including senior Elizabeth Davidson, the team's starting second baseman.

"Every day Jenny and I would talk about who she had asked to play and who else could she ask," Beasley said. "I give her a lot of credit for spearheading a group of girls to revitalize the Hammond softball program."

With five eighth graders, no freshmen, four sophomores, two juniors, and three seniors, Hammond took to the field in early March. The depth chart was virtually non- existent and the team relied on its one pitcher, Cobbs.

They lost. And lost. And lost. 30- 15 to Ben Lippen School. 20- 0 to Cardinal Newman. 15- 5 to St. Joseph's Catholic School.

But Beasley saw each loss as an opportunity, even in the games when the mercy rule was invoked.

"Our first game, against Ben Lippen, we were competitive and actually forced a game to seven innings," Beasley said. "While this will never show in the scorebook, this was definitely a moral victory. Before the season was over, we had played several seven- inning games and actually were competitive in a few, losing by only two runs once."

Moral victories aside, the Skyhawks, however, found getting one "real" win elusive. The final game was against Ben Lippen, the team that had defeated them 30- 15 in a wild, error- filled first game of the season.

Beasley said the girls, especially Priester, prepared for that game harder than any other. Jenny asked the coach if the team could meet for a Sunday practice.

"Imagine having a team that had not won in five years, not won all season long, with no one expecting them to win and then, as the coach, you have players ask to practice on the weekend before the last game," Beasley said. "I knew then, regardless of the outcome of this game, these girls were winners."

Duly prepared, the teams met at Hammond's home field, in front of the largest gathering of fans to date, about 35, many of whom just wanted to see if the team could finally pull out a win. It almost wasn't to be.

This particular matchup of the season had already been rained out once, and the rescheduled date, Monday, didn't look much more promising as rain clouds gathered right before the first pitch.

Most of the game was played in a steady rain, but Hammond was up 4- 0, then 4- 2, then 4- 3. When the downpour really started, Cobbs began losing control of the slippery ball and walked a few. A wild pitch led to the run that put Ben Lippen ahead 5- 4 in the fifth inning.

A sudden burst of lightning and clap of thunder put the game in a rain delay. After a short, violent shower, the skies cleared, the sun came out and so did the Skyhawk defense. Only one more run came in that inning, and in the bottom of the fifth, Hammond put up a four- spot.

With the game on the line, the Skyhawks finally shut the door on the Falcons in the final two innings, and recorded their first win in five years, 8- 6.

"I never expected to win," said Priester. "I never expected us to go to the playoffs either."

Wait… what?

With its single win, Hammond qualified for the South Carolina Independent Schools Association double- elimination softball playoffs, which was held last Friday at Pine Grove Softball Complex in Lexington. The Skyhawks lost to Florence Christian 10- 2, but nearly pulled off an upset of Augusta Christian in the second game, losing 11- 10 after their seventh- inning rally fell just short.

But nobody seemed to care, the team still riding on the crest of its Monday victory and the buzz that it generated throughout the school.

"When we told people that we won, they said, 'No, that didn't happen,'" Cobbs said.

But it did.

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