By Gabriel Stovall
STOCKBRIDGE, Ga. — Think it not strange that at least seven members of the Woodland High softball team are already shedding tears as if it’s the end of the season.
They’re the seniors and they can’t help it. They’re already thinking about the reality that, with three weeks before it takes the field for its August 4 opener against Eagle’s Landing Christian Academy, it is the beginning of the end.
An end of their time together with coach Kelli Poff on a team that has fused hearts together through the years and become a sort of extended family to each other.
That’s why even now — during summer workouts with half the team away wrapping up travel ball schedules — Poff can hardly talk about it without getting all choked up.
“It’s emotional, honestly, to talk about, because I can’t imagine these girls graduating,” Poff said. “During our first summer practice, we talked for like 30 minutes about it. Girls were crying. I was crying. It was just like knowing this is our last summer together.”
And Poff has been counting down.
“At the beginning of summer, it was like we only have five months together as a team,” she said. “As of July 1 it was just four months. So we’re cherishing every second, every practice.”
That’s not just coach speak.
“We’ve all become so close and we’re all like sisters,” said senior Lexee Emanuel. “It doesn’t matter how old we are or how young we are. Even the freshmen are like sisters to us, and us to them. Now that it’s coming to an end, it’s kind of sad. I don’t want it to.”
To be sure, Lady Wolfpack softball hasn’t just been close, they’ve been good. This rising senior class is responsible for 73 wins, a pair of Region 4-AAAA championships (2012 and 2013) and an impressive runner-up region tournament finish to Northgate in their first season in Region 4-AAAAA, a region that has turned out two of the last three Class AAAAA champions.
They call it “the region of death.”
“Last year before the season, we went into the new region and we were saying we want to dominate the region,” Poff said. “And we did well in region last year.”
But the coach says a combination of her own maturation and her team’s realization that their time together is rapidly winding down has caused the focus for 2015 to shift a bit.
“Actually, no, we aren’t saying that getting back to the region championship is what we have to do,” she said. “I think last year we maybe fell apart a bit at the end because we got too worried and wins and losses. I think now we realize we need to maintain our humility, work hard and just take one game at a time, literally, and enjoy being beside each other. I think the more games we do that, the more we’re going to win.”
Part of that bonding includes Poff gathering her team voluntarily to pray before each summer game her team played. She said that as her faith has steadily grown, she more clearly sees the benefits of sharing it with any of her players who would be receptive.
It’s just one more way Poff hopes to leave a lasting deposit of her heart into the hearts of those who have been by her side during some of the most important moments of her life over the last four years.
“It’s just not being ashamed to show my faith and let my girls know that God is my number one,” she said. “Before our first game this summer, I told them we’re gonna pray. We’re going to stand in a huddle and pray. Obviously they don’t have to because I can’t make them, but they didn’t skip a beat.”
And it didn’t take long for the team to take ownership of their new pre-game ritual.
“The best part is when we played our second game the next day, I didn’t even have to say anything about it,” she said. “They just went on to the bag at third base and huddled up. It was great, because if we can make this bonding the focus of our season, if it only changes one person even just a little bit by the end of the season, that’s what it’s all about.”
But that doesn’t mean Poff’s bunch doesn’t want to go out on top. The coach will be the first person to say that she felt her 2014 Woodland squad had the ability to make a state title run.
“Personally, for me, I had that feeling after we lost to Greenbrier, and we don’t want to feel that way again,” she said. “Not taking anything away from them. They’re a good program. But we feel like we definitely had the talent to beat them and to make a deeper run at state.”
Granted, Greenbrier — the team that ousted them early in last year’s state tournament — ended up winning it all in Class AAAAA. But that didn’t take away the sting of the defeat for senior second baseman and short stop Danielle Castleberry.
“We want to win state,” said Castleberry, a Mercer commitment and 2014 all-state performer. “It’s definitely scary because we know that this is our last year to get our goal that we’ve been working on for the last four years.”
Emanuel said she also feels the extra pressure of that goes with knowing that there are no more opportunities to reach the pinnacle of Georgia high school softball after this season.
“It’s different because, like, last year, you always had that mindset that we can always get it next year,” she said. “Or if you’re a freshman, the year after. But now this is our last chance. We’ve wanted the same goal since our freshman year, so we’re going to do it.”
And Mallie Brown, a junior pitcher for the Wolfpack, loves her senior sisters so much that she’s put extra emphasis on preparing herself to help make it happen.
“I’ve done a lot of conditioning and weight room work during the summer so I can be in a position where I don’t feel like I let the team down,” Brown said. “It’s been great playing with them, and they’ve always had my back even if I do bad on the mound. It’s going to be really hard for them not being here for my senior year.”
As for Poff, if it were up to her, she’d appeal for extra years of high school eligibility for her seven seniors.
“We’re ready to get on the field again,” she said. “Sky’s the limit for them as long as we make it about the team. I just don’t want them to graduate. I wanna keep them here forever, but it doesn’t work that way. So we’ve definitely gotta make it happen this year.”
THE WOLFPACK SENIOR SEVEN:
Danielle Castleberry, 2B, SS
Kayla Bohannon, SS, OF (Whitewater transfer)
Lexi Duncan, CF, 1B
Shannon Sikes, INF, OF
Carly Rigsbee, INF, OF, UTIL
Lexee Emanuel, C, INF
Hannah Roberts, OF, UTIL