The open and the close of the prep softball season came on the same day this past Thursday, as the North-South Softball Classic was held on a blisteringly hot day at Buffalo City Field.
The event was a bit different this year, with four teams — one from each region — competing in a tournament with two semifinals, a consolation game and a championship game.
Region 3 took the title with a 3-0 win over Region 1, but the day went far beyond results and box scores.
On top of an atmosphere of genuine joy radiating from players happy to have one last game in their high school uniforms, there was also a bittersweet tint to the day. Players and coaches were happy to get a final goodbye, but at the end of the day for a senior class that was highly successful locally, it was just that — goodbye.
“It didn’t cross my mind until I was walking back to the dugout,” Herbert Hoover’s Delani Buckner said after her Region 2 squad bested Region 4 in the consolation game. “It’s just bittersweet. It’s happy knowing we got that last game, but at the same time it’s looking back at what could have been with your teammates having that one last locker room meeting, one last practice — it’s just bittersweet, but I enjoyed the opportunity to play today.”
For Buckner, it was an even more special day as she was surrounded by three teammates and Huskies head coach Missy Smith and assistant Jamanda Rollyson, who, along with Nicholas County coach Marie Shaffer, led the Region 2 team. Pitcher/infielder Presley McGee, second baseman Rylee Nottingham and catcher Jess Canterbury played their final prep games alongside teammate Buckner, who was the co-state Player of the Year in 2019 and the Gatorade state Player of the Year in 2018.
The chatter in the dugout and around it was very reminiscent of games played in Falling Rock over the past three seasons, each of which ended with a Class AA state championship for the Huskies.
“I got the chance to coach them again and that was a special thing,” Smith said. “They were a special group on the field, but off the field they were a great group too. To be able to have that relationship with them, I hope it continues through their college careers and into their adult life and that they know that I’m always a phone call away.”
Those kinds of final hurrahs could be found all over the diamond on Thursday. Hurricane coach Meghan Stevens helped guide the Region 4 team alongside Sherman coaches Jim Henderson and Terri Williams.
Stevens also had to say goodbye to a senior class that would’ve chased a fourth straight state championship as the Redskins have won five straight Class AAA titles. On Thursday, Hurricane pitcher Harlie Vannatter and second baseman Lindsey Phares were among players on a crowded Region 4 roster.
“I was very thankful tor the opportunity to coach Harlie one more time and to see Lindsey out there making a diving catch one more time,” Stevens said. “I wish so badly for all the seniors in the state that they could’ve gotten that opportunity. Also, getting to know some of the girls on rival teams. It was something special.”
Aside from the emotions of the day, the event underwent a format change with the folks at Buffalo perhaps unintentionally striking gold.
Prior to this year, one team from the North and one from the South played two seven-inning contests followed by a five-inning game, with all of those coming after lengthy skills competitions that lasted throughout the morning. Those skill competitions were gone this time around, and what ensued was a true tournament with four squads, doubling the number of seniors afforded the opportunity to participate.
All four games were competitive, with Region 3’s three-run win in the title tilt being the most lopsided score of the day.
Smith and Region 3 coach Christian Watts had coached in the game under the old format, and both agreed that regional representation and a true tournament feel should continue in future years while Stevens had mixed feelings.
“I liked it because you got to see more kids,” Smith said. “It gave more kids a chance to get recognized.”
“Some people worried that you would pull down the talent pool but I loved it,” Watts said. “There’s so many kids from various areas that kids get overlooked. “[The Gazette-Mail does] a great job of covering our local student athletes, but other parts of the state do not so we don’t always know what’s out there. I don’t know what they’re planning for the future, but this was great.”
“Region 4 is hard because we have so many good teams here,” Stevens said. “I liked the tournament feel of it and the regional representation, but wish maybe the girls would have had an opportunity to play more innings. Maybe we can blend the two and bring back the skills stuff as well.”