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State tournament notebook: Culture sets Hurricane softball apart

May 24, 2019

VIENNA, W.Va. - As Hurricane put the finishing touches on its fifth consecutive Class AAA softball championship Thursday there was a gamut of emotions that ran through the players.

There was the happiness of victory. However, there was also a bit of sadness.

That being because their journey had reached its end together and this particular team will never take the field again.

It was an interesting dynamic as Hurricane head coach Meghan Stevens gathered her team in a circle following the final out and subsequent dog pile in the middle of the field.

Amidst the smiles on the players’ faces, there were also loud sobs echoing as Stevens tried to address the team.

“It’s hard to explain,” Caiti Mathes said. “Knowing all the hard work through the season and the losses, the tough practices, it’s all paid off, but I -- I just don’t know. It’s sad, too. I’ll miss it.”

Hurricane junior pitcher Harlie Vannatter had the dust of Field 3 at Jackson Memorial Park running down her face as tears flowed while she embraced Mathes and fellow seniors Taylor McCray and Zoey Dunlap.

“Oh my gosh,” Vannatter said. “This is our last game with the seniors and they’ve been a huge part of our success, obviously. They are all starters and all going to play in college. It’s hard because it’s the last season and we’ve all been so close. They are my best friends. It feels so good to win, but we don’t want the season to be over.”

Perhaps the best example of the culture Hurricane has built came following the game when the team lined up for its championship picture.

As that was going on former players such as Virginia Tech’s Jayme Bailey and Marshall University’s Katie Adams all got together and snagged a water cooler from a dugout, then snuck around to douse Stevens while the picture was being taken.

Stevens said that continued bond was pivotal as the team rallied back after starting the year 2-3.

“I’m going to get emotional,” Stevens said before pausing. “We’re just so close. I stay in contact with them all the time. I cheer for them, they cheer for us. Early in the year when we had that rough start, Jayme was the first one to send a (text) to the girls and tell them, ‘Heads up. We’re behind you. We know you can do better.’ It’s just a lot, a lot of love for one another.”

That bond isn’t achieved overnight, as Stevens pointed out. It comes from genuinely caring for one another and working as hard on building chemistry as building fundamentals.

In an odd twist, Stevens told the team earlier this season that if they won the region title they could get a team pet for the state tournament. Ironically, it turned into the only argument the team had with the decision on what pet to get.

“Harlie loves animals -- fish, hamsters, everything -- and LSU had a fish,” Stevens said. “I had told them we could get a Beta (fish) if they won regionals. I took them to Petco and, of course, the fish won’t do. I talked them off the ledge of getting a cat and all other stuff, but we agreed on the hamster. They have loved life and taken care of him and he’s up here with us.”

“Coots” the team hamster might not have been as celebratory in the sun following the win, but you can bet that he’ll be at the celebration dinner for the team before going back with Vannatter or Stevens to stay in their care.

Of course, there is the old saying that goes “Winning is everything.”

But for Hurricane, it isn’t. The bond is everything.

And that bond through tough times is what has led the Redskins to five consecutive Class AAA state championships.

STREAKS CONTINUE: While Hurricane’s streak of championships continued, another team also kept a streak going.

In Class AA, Herbert Hoover’s impressive run through a tough road ended when the Huskies earned their third straight championship with a 5-1 win over Petersburg.

LYON-HEARTED: Hurricane’s Rachel Lyon had a state tournament to remember. Lyon, the team’s No. 8 batter, finished the week 6-for-9 with a double and three RBI.

It was part of a strong week of production for the bottom of the Hurricane lineup that played its best with the season in the balance.

“They really stepped up during the state tournament,” Mathes said. “They got a lot of reps in and they know what was coming at them. We had a lot of faith in them and we talked them up and they did their job.”

NOT-SO-WEATHER DELAY: At 9:58 a.m., play was halted for lightning in the area that forced a 30-minute delay.

During that delay, the decision was made to halt play until 2 p.m. because of a potential weather pattern moving in. There was only one issue, however. That weather pattern never surfaced, which delayed play despite sunshine and clouds intermingling over the fields.

In the end, though, deciding better safe than sorry played out as the right move with championship action being bad weather-free and games ending by 6:15 p.m.

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