By Donald Heath
Special for the Effingham Herald
GUYTON — It’s been a long journey down a winding road for the seniors of South Effingham’s softball team.
The girls — Avery Roddenberry, Mattie Turner, Chloe Turner and Kaley Stone — have had three coaches. They know what it's like to go to Columbus, to lose 20 games in a season, to take on Buford, one of the state’s elite softball programs, and push the Wolves to a deciding third game.
On Wednesday, the girls compete on the final day of the Region 2-AAAAAA tournament. They’ll be starting the state tournament in a week.
Destination, Columbus. Again.
“(Playing in the state tournament) is a nerve-racking deal, but if we play how we know we can play, it will pay off,” Stone said. “I think we can all work together and win.”
On Senior Night (Sept. 29) at SEHS, the four seniors gave a sample of working together. Each had a hit. And they combined to drive in three runs and score three times during a 5-0 victory over Statesboro.
The Mustangs are 20-4 this year and 48-8-1 over the last two seasons. Before the region tournament, they had won eight games in a row, seven by shutout.
But statistics don’t tell a story that often goes unnoticed, said SEHS coach Jessica Evans. The seniors go about their work with humility and leadership follows naturally.
“A lot of these girls are the first ones on the field and they’re the last ones to leave,” Evans said. “There are seniors who are going to collect (players’ dirty) jerseys, put them in baskets and put them in my truck. They’re going to clean up, sweep the locker room after everyone has left because they want to make sure it looks nice.
“I know there are other programs that think the freshmen should carry the buckets, grab the coolers, do the dirty work. I’m a true believer that to be a leader, you have to be a servant. You can’t just boss people around because you’re a senior. A lot of our girls don’t have a clue our seniors do the locker room stuff.”
Overcoming adversity has provided an edge, the seniors say. During their ninth-grade year, the seniors were led by coach Chuck Smith and a veteran group. They advanced to Columbus and placed fifth at state overall.
Then Smith left. The upperclassmen graduated. The program struggled under a new coach and plummeted to a 13-20 record the next year.
Then Evans took over.
“I think the diversity helped us understand what we needed,” Mattie Turner said. “We had to learn the game and come together as a team mentally as well as physically.”
The lesson wasn’t for everyone. Six seniors started this season, but two are no longer with the team.
“We weren’t connected like we are now,” Roddenberry said. “We’ve formed a bond. We’re like one being, instead of 25 individuals. It’s crazy.”
Before the season’s first pitch, the Mustangs proudly displayed their future intentions, wearing t-shirt proclaiming their goal of reaching Columbus — the site of the eight-team, double-elimination tournament which will decide the state champion.
Number of miles to reach that destination — 237.2.
“When we were there as freshmen, it was awesome,” Chloe Turner said. “Last year, we didn’t get to (Columbus), so that’s given us that extra push.”
Stone said taking a tougher path has had benefits.
“If you can nitpick the little things each coach taught us and you put them together, ... look at us now,” she said. “I’m glad for our journey.”