Editor’s note: This story is the third of a series of three stories examining the beginning of Oconee County High School’s successful softball program.
A pandemic breeds perspective. Oconee County High School softball players had their temperatures checked heading onto the practice field on Tuesday morning. It’s standard procedure at this point.
It acts a reminder of the times. There were dozens of smiles on the faces of players in the warmup lines. In the distance their goal sits atop the scoreboard. There are eight state championship banners hanging in center field.
The Lady Warriors expect to win as they always do. This year, winning isn’t the only thing. The opportunity to step on the field each day isn’t a given.
“We’re just blessed to have another season with everything going on right now,” senior Chloe Middlebrooks said. “If we come out and win a state championship, that’s awesome, but then again, if we get a few games in that’s more than we could expect right now.”
On one hand, the Lady Warriors are grateful for the sport and on the other sits the Lady Warriors proud softball tradition. OCHS’ first-year head coach Zack Graham can feel the culture in how his new players carry themselves. Graham hasn’t had to make any speeches about where the program is headed or where they should be.
“There’s not much to be said,” Graham said. “The signs out there speak for themselves. You know the expectations are high. I think as a coach, you don’t need to be in a place where the expectations aren’t high. That’s important that it drives the kids. Expectations being high is good for everybody. It pushes everybody. It pushed the coaches. It pushes the kids. It gives them something to match to try and add to the wall out there.”
The Lady Warriors also carry a bond. Many of the players on the 2020 roster have been together since the beginning of their softball playing days.
Their families know one another. They’ve been family instead of teammates for much of their softball careers.
“It’s a family,” senior Mattie Mentel said. “We’ve been playing together for like eight years. The grandparents that come, I call them grandma, grandpa and everything…We’re going to college soon and we’re living our last year with all of our best friends.”
The sentiment of family as it pertains to OCHS softball is familiar sounds familiar to alumnus Beth (Fogle) Burbridge.
Burbridge still has a jar of dirt in her office from the field where Oconee County High School won its first softball state championship. The second state title the Lady Warriors won wasn’t supposed to happen. The Lady Warriors were down to their last out with the ninth hitter at the plate in the consolation bracket.
The Lady Warriors believed in their teammate and clawed all the way to their second straight championship.
“I can close my eyes and put myself right there with them during the two-days,” Burbridge said. “They’re out there working together and working hard and depending on each other. From that you build a family. You build a family of teammates that support you both on and off the field. It’s one of those things. Playing and depending on each, you build a bond that stays with you forever.”
That bond is something Burbridge has been able to cherish since she left high school. She hopes the same happens for the Lady Warriors of today.
“Those moments are so fleeting,” Burbridge said. “Looking back its like snapping your finger and it’s gone. If I had anything to tell them it would be to enjoy all of it. Enjoy being together. Enjoy the wins and learn from the losses. It is a fleeting moment, but all of the lessons stay with you. That’s what you realize when you go to college and when you start working.”