Editor’s note: This story is the second of a series of three stories examining the beginning of Oconee County High School’s successful softball program.
Caryle Penland walked down the path toward the bleachers situated adjacent to home plate at Oconee County High School’s softball field. She was there to watch a friend’s daughter play for the Lady Warriors in her senior season.
The Title IX fight that made the OCHS softball program possible wasn’t far from her memory. The program had come a long way from the one Penland left in 1994. That was the Lady Warriors’ first season.
A sign caught her eye.
Near the top was her name. ‘Caryle Penland, Class of 1995, Mercer University.”
Stretching across the back of the Lady Warriors’ dugout were more names, nearly 50 of them. The wall behind the home dugout commemorates former OCHS softball players that have gone on to play college softball following high school.
Penland took a photo.
“I wasn’t aware of that until I walked by it,” Penland said. “It was an amazing sense of pride for everyone. Not just to see my name up, but to see multiple names up there. I’m just proud of my school, my alma mater. I’m proud of all those girls that have gone on and even those that didn’t go on to play in college. There’s just a tremendous sense of pride.”
Penland was the first. That title belongs to her in a lot of different ways. She was the first Lady Warrior to drive in a run. She was the first pitcher to record a win. She was the first to sign a college scholarship. She was the first senior to graduate as a member of OCHS’ fast-pitch softball program. During the formation of the team, she was the oldest player on the first team. Penland remembers the fight as well as any.
Anonymously, a Title IX complaint was filed against the school district in the summer of 1993. According to an article printed in the Dec. 17 1999 Atlanta Journal Constitution the complaint was the first brought against a Georgia high school. Title IX had been an option since 1972. Prior to the complaint OCHS only had four teams represented by girls. The school fielded a slow-pitch softball team, track and field, tennis and girls basketball teams.
“I understood the desire of the parents,” Former Oconee County School District Superintendent Debra Harden said. “There was a strong feeling that it would open up opportunity. I understood their desire for their daughters to have every opportunity. I also understood the realities of managing that.”
After months of meeting the school district announced a resolution to the complaint. The school was set to add multiple girls athletic programs over the following five years. A fast-pitch team was to be added in the fall of 1994. It was the first of the planned additions.
Once the dust of the process settled, Harden came away pleased with how things worked out and the opportunities created by the additions of all of the sports added.
“There weren’t many, if any, teams in our region at the time, so there was a real practical issue that we were concerned with,” Harden said. “Once we got through it. I did some workshops for the Georgia High School Association on implementing and how to work through it. I’m glad it happened.”
Over the next five years the school added volleyball, soccer, gymnastics to their slate. For the fast-pitch softball community it was an opportunity. Penland remembers playing little league and on the travel ball circuit. It was another experience to represent her high school and to play in front of her school friends.
“It was important for me to represent Oconee and it was nice to be the only senior and to have a sense of leadership and pride to lead those very talented athletes who followed behind me,” Penland said. “It was a very humbling experience to be that first person to graduate. We had wonderful support. We had excellent coaching. We had parental support. We supported each other.”
For many, the addition of the fast-pitch team changed their trajectories. Beth (Fogle) Burbridge was a freshman on the first team. She joined OCHS’ first team and began playing travel ball. She turned that into a scholarship to play at the University of Kentucky. Burbridge has remained in Kentucky and has started a family in the area.
She’s grateful for the Title IX process and the opportunity the school’s softball program afforded her.
“If Title IX had not existed and we had not had that team, I wouldn’t have gotten a scholarship to play the University of Kentucky,” Burbridge said. “I wouldn’t have ended up settling my life here after college. That included meeting my husband or having my family. My life would be in a completely different place. I am beyond grateful to have played at Oconee County to have helped build the program.”
Lacey (Gardener) Smith’s perspective is similar to Burbridge’s. Smith played collegiately at Kennesaw State University and at the University of Georgia.
Smith remembers playing in a lot of softball games, but the best times she can remember came wearing an OCHS uniform.
“It was the time of our lives playing together in high school and having the support of the community,” Smith said. “I’ll never forget it. Every year I’ll have a picture pop up of me and Jamie Jefcoat with the first state championship ball sitting on home plate. That’s one of my fondest memories. I remember more about high school than I do about travel ball. It was a great feeling representing Oconee and watching them grow. I have that ball downstairs in my basement. All of the girls signed it.”
As 26 years have come and gone, members of the early teams at OCHS have grown more grateful to the people that pushed forward with the complaint.
As teenagers the magnitude and discomfort of the process was unbeknownst to the Lady Warriors.
“In getting older and having kids of my own and being where I am, I have so much more gratitude for the fight put in for us that I wasn’t necessarily aware of in high school,” Burbridge said. “I didn’t have the same appreciation for it then. You get older and you start to realize what a sacrifice that somebody else made. They took their time and effort to make this possible for all of us. There’s so much gratitude on my end that they did that and stepped forward. It was probably a very uncomfortable situation for them. They chose to take the harder route to make it easier for us. I have so much gratitude for that... I wouldn’t have had the experiences at Kentucky that turned me into the person that I am.”