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Historic senior class of Lady Indians rediscover magic to protect legacy with fourth straight final four

By Sean Arnold

Could they flip the switch when it counted most?

It was a question that haunted Chiefland softball coaches and supporters.

Would “senioritis” and the distraction of college softball scholarships and the rest of it deter from the drive that put three rings on the seniors’ fingers?

Would the players fail to peak in time to earn a fourth straight trip to the state finals Vero Beach?

The question never seemed to overly concern the players on the field. Everyone involved knew the fourth meeting with Trenton is the one that would matter most when the final tallies were made.

Still, a couple of unflattering losses to the upstart Lady Tigers – one just 11 days prior in the district championship game – had some wondering if the Chiefland softball team was leaning too much on past playoff magic, convinced it could turn it on when the time demanded.

“I was kind of nervous about it, but I knew we’d won three state championships,” CMHS coach Wayne Weatherford said after the regional championship win over Trenton. “We’d had our share of wins, and we weren’t giving up, but we knew Trenton would be right there.”

With the season’s ups and downs, Coach Jimmy Anderson wasn’t sure the team would end up back in the final four.

“Trenton’s a really good team and I wasn’t sure we were going to get past them because we haven’t been focused,” Anderson said. “But here late in the season, about the last three or four games, they’ve come together and played pretty good. Flip the switch – that’s kind of what they’ve done.

“We don’t think we’re going to do anything with them and then they run off three or four games, look like we can’t be beat by nobody. But then we play somebody and wonder how the heck did we win as many games as we did. That’s girls softball for you though.”

“We’ve been after them all year,” pitching coach Harland Stalvey said. “We thought they’ve been a little lax at times, but when they needed to do it they got it done. I think they knew everything hinged on the postseason and they stepped it up when they needed to.

“Every team’s different,” Stalvey added. “You have to push different buttons for every team.”

In a way, the team’s seniors were back where they started as freshmen, having suffered through multiple lopsided defeats to a bitter rival before finding an answer in the final minute.

The opponent was Dixie County back then. The Lady Bears handed Chiefland a trio of losses – in including in the district championship – before the pair met in the 2014 regional finals in Cross City, where CMHS stunned the Bears 3-2 before going on to win its first state title.

“That’s what a ton of people were thinking, that it was going to be the same exact thing (as when we were freshmen),” senior Sydney Parks said. “A lot of people were talking about our record, because Trenton only had two losses and we had more than we probably should.”

“We tend to play better in more pressured situations,” senior center fielder Lauren Parker said. “We definitely step up when we need to. During districts, we were like, ‘Listen ya’ll, this isn’t the most important game of the season; next week is. Those are one-and-done.’”

“It’s kind of like deja vu, because we really did struggle our first year (as freshmen),” senior left fielder Samantha Rolfe said.

Rolfe’s attitude toward hitting embodies her team’s unflinching attitude in high-leverage situations. The senior outfielder feels like she can’t hit until she has two strikes on her. Her father calls her the “Clutch.”

“We have this certain inning, when it hits the bottom of the fifth inning, we’re ready to play and we’re ready to bring it,” Rolfe said. “I don’t know why we wait that long, but we do. I had really good feelings about that game. I didn’t have any doubts about my teammates.”

The team addressed one another in a players-only huddle before the Trenton game. The seniors reminded the team it could have been the last time they would all play together. They didn’t demand a win, just the team’s best effort. Last year’s seniors, who also have three championship rings, were also on hand to lend support.

“We had a lot more energy than any other game,” junior third baseman Erika Gilliam said. “The seniors said, ‘Just play this for us. We’re not asking for a win, but a win would be nice. We want you to play your hardest and play with everything you’ve got.’

“We left it all on the field. And we’re bringing it all to state.”

The rivalry with Trenton added to weight to an already high-stakes showdown.

“I said I would have traded that win for a state championship,” Parker said. “It really did mean a lot just because they’re our rival and they were expected to win.”

Senior shortstop Takiya London concurred. She said the players huddle allowed everyone to take a deep breath.

“I kind of thought it was starting to fall together for us at the Frostproof (regional semifinal) game, when we started playing better as a team, which boosted my confidence,” said London, who is least reluctant to demand more urgency from her teammates. “And then with all the trash talk and considering we don’t like (Trenton), it made everyone want to win even more.

“Plus it was on their field.”

In Trenton, with the word ‘hungry’ etched on her hand, senior catcher Emily Hallman took inspiration from a pep talk from last season.

“You have to be hungry, you have to come ready to dominate on the field, dominate in every standpoint, not let them find your weaknesses,” she said.

Still, the process would have to come one play at a time.

“Something I like to tell my teammates is, ‘Do, don’t overdo,’” Hallman said. “A lot of times, softball, baseball, it’s a mental game. You’ve got to slow down down a fast game.

“With us, we want to take one thing at a time and not be overconfident, because you never know until it’s there. We always say to take every game moment by moment, out by out.”

Of the seniors, Parks was the most uncertain with where Chiefland stood entering the playoffs. 

“I don’t know why, but I was super nervous when we played Frostproof,” she said. “I was scared, but in the end, (losing the district championship) helped us, because I like playing in Trenton on their field.  

“We had that mojo going.”

While the team is brimming with playoff and championship experience, sophomore pitcher Kensley Durrance is making her first run through the playoffs as the starting pitcher, something the seniors keep in mind when it comes to supporting their ace. The nine innings of relief she tossed in the state semifinal game last May certainly added to the team’s confidence heading into the year.

“I think being around the girls my eighth-grade and ninth-grade years, just coming into some situations, help me build confidence with them and get close to them,” Durrance said. “Being the starter, it’s been an honor. I’ve loved it.”

Parks and Durrance have a long history together from travel ball, which makes the second baseman a calming presence for the sophomore. An exchange of looks is all that’s usually needed.

“I’ve always been her second baseman and she’s always been my pitcher,” Parks said. “She came right in and I knew from then she wouldn’t let us down. That bond – every time after she pitches she’d look at me.”

To oversimplify, the leadership personalities of Chiefland’s seniors are nearly divided between the infielders – London, Parks and Hallman – who wear a grittier approach on the field, while the outfield trio of Parker, Rolfe and Aleaha Rhoomes communicate more through humor and even childlike glee. They’re no less determined for whatever style they see fit.

Rhoomes, who scored the first run against Trenton last Tuesday, often referred to as “Smiley,” perhaps best represents the team’s affability, playfulness and comradery.

Rolfe, who is perhaps the most vocal and demonstrative player on the team, said she prides herself on being a leader, but the new role as a senior didn’t come easy. Her two-run hit in the seventh against Trenton reminded Coach Weatherford of her inside-the-park home run as a freshman in the state semifinals.

“It’s kind of stressful for us this year because it’s kind of hard to step into the leadership shoes,” Rolfe says.

“I feel like the younger girls really do listen,” Parker says. “They take into consideration what we say.”

Lena Weatherford, who’s worked with her husband Wayne since the couple got into coaching more than two decades ago, was concerned about the team’s prospects early in the season.

“I was a little worried about them not peaking,” said Mrs. Weatherford, who won championships as a player at Trenton. “At the beginning of the season, I thought, ‘Oh my, they don’t have the drive.’ I think knowing they had a college scholarship let them relax a little bit, because the last couple of games I’ve seen it. I was beginning to think we were going to coast through this season and be done.

But one thing has never changed about this group, according to Weatherford.

“I’ve never seen them get rattled,” she says. “Even last year in the state playoffs, when we went 12 innings, never did I see them get upset.

“They were cool, calm.”

Just don’t mistake the coolness for indifference.