Moving forward

Published 12:00 am Tuesday, May 29, 2012

Pleasant Home's Caitlin Jernigan (left) throws to first during the first state championship game at Lagoon Park. The Lady Eagles will harness their emotions and use it on the field in 2013, coach Bradley Stephens said. | Andrew Garner/Star-News

When the final out of Pleasant Home’s 2012 softball season was recorded in the Class 1A state championship game at Lagoon Park in Montgomery, the Lady Eagles started preparing for 2013.

PHS coach Bradley Stephens said he took something University of Alabama head football coach Nick Saban said to his players after they had lost to Florida in the 2008 SEC Championship game, and applied it to his team after they lost 3-2 to top-ranked Ragland.

After the Lady Eagles fell to the Lady Devils in the state championship, tears were shed and emotions ran high on the team as they huddled around the runner up trophy during the awards ceremony.

“Nick Saban took his team after they lost to Florida in the SEC championship and told them to harness that emotion and go into next season and put forth all of that emotion into hard work and not to be outworked by any other team,” Stephens said.

“That’s one thing that I feel like the girls can take from this season,” he said. “If they’ll take that, and put it forth in practice and put it in every game, we’ll be able to accomplish that one goal, which is to win state.”

Pleasant Home entered the state tournament as the top seed coming from the South Regional Tournament in Gulf Shores. The Lady Eagles stayed in the winner’s bracket all the way through the regional tournament and state tournaments, which were a first for the team that graduated one senior on Thursday night.

Before the regional tournament, the Lady Eagles had to face adversity against rival Brantley, who Stephens said really helped the team get prepared for regionals.

In the first game of the Class 1A, Area 3 tournament, the Lady Eagles trailed 4-3 in the last inning, but a two-run double by Ashley Copeland sealed the first round win, and eventually gave PHS the momentum to win the area championship.

“When you face a quality team leading up to regionals, that helps,” Stephens said. “A lot of your scheduling helps you get through the regionals.”

Stephens said that point of the season was when he saw the team really come together and play, and he said he saw that they realized they could win a state championship.

“That was the turning point,” he said. “The girls realized that they can face adversity and still come out on top, which are signs of a good team.

“I also started seeing a lot of spiritual growth among the girls,” he said. “As a softball coach, it’s not just my job to teach them about softball. If I just teach these girls how to win a game of softball, then I’m failing as a softball coach.”

Pleasant Home got off to a great start at the regional tournament, defeating McIntosh 18-0 and Sweet Water 10-0 to earn a berth in the winner’s bracket semifinals.

On a late Friday night at the Sportsplex in Gulf Shores, the Lady Eagles overcame tiredness and fatigue to beat Kinston 9-2 to get a ticket to not only the regional finals, but the state tournament.

The next day, a Saturday, the Lady Eagles beat Kinston 4-0 for the championship. KHS eliminated Sweet Water in the loser’s bracket title game to earn a state tournament berth.

Early on the first day of the state tournament, PHS had its hands full when it faced Ragland. The Lady Eagles came out on top, winning the first game 2-0, and then went on to beat Athens Bible 4-3, scoring three runs in the seventh inning to come out on top.

Pleasant Home trailed by as many as three runs at one point against Kinston in the winner’s bracket semis, but later chipped away at the lead.

The Lady Eagles were down 5-4 going into the final inning, and scored two runs — one on a passed ball and the other on an RBI single from Helena Weaver — to have a chance to play in the state championship game.

Ragland dominated its competition down in the loser’s bracket throughout the state tournament, defeating Fayetteville 20-0; Maplesville 13-2; Athens Bible 14-0; and then Kinston 4-2.

In the first championship game, PHS lost 13-2, but regrouped and made a game of it against RHS in the if necessary game.

Stephens said it was “devastating” to finish runner up, but quite an accomplishment.

“You go so hard. You work hard,” he said. “Then, there at the end, with the state tournament, we had, statistically speaking, our two worst games in the championship games. We had errors in the field that weren’t there before.

“We didn’t produce the runs like we did before,” he said. “But at the same time, it was a huge accomplishment. Like I said, our team goal was to win state. We just fell one run short.”

Some early, early goals for the team in 2013 include playing smarter, learning from making mistakes, playing through pressure a little better, base running and establishing more pitching on the team, Stephens said.

And the second thing Stephens said he’s going to use to help his team get ready for 2013 involves “finishing.”

“I was watching Alabama playing Michigan in softball (Thursday night). They have these rubber bands around their wrists that said, ‘Finish It.’ That spoke words to me,” he said. “Alabama, in the past, their softball program could get to softball World Series, but would fall short. Their coach has always said we’ve got to finish and don’t finish short, just finish the whole thing.”

And that’s what PHS is aiming to do next year.