Wednesday, May 18, 2016

SPORTS STORY >> JNP ladies gel, turn in stellar year

Leader sports editor

This school year was the first one since fastpitch softball began in the state of Arkansas that there were no North Pulaski Lady Falcons. It’s also the last year for the Jacksonville Red Devils, so it was fitting that a conglomeration of players from North Pulaski High and JHS put the city of Jacksonville back on the map this season. The stellar year, however, came to an end Saturday in the semifinal round of the Class 5A state tournament in Harrison.

That’s where the Lady Red Devils fell 3-1 to 5A-West champion Greenbrier, ending their season with an impressive 26-5 record.

Jacksonville grabbed a 1-0 lead in the second inning, but a couple of hot Greenbrier bats, a couple of mistakes and an inability to find the gaps offensively led to the season-ending loss.

“We hit it, we just hit right to them,” said JHS coach Hank Hawk. “Kym House was outstanding on the mound. Bri (Brianna Loyd) did great when she was on the mound. For the tournament, we didn’t hit like we have most of the year, but the girls played their hearts out. I’m so proud of this team.”

Despite the disappointing ending, this year’s team brought Jacksonville its first conference championship since 2004, first state semifinal appearance since 2002 and first undefeated conference record since 2001. The 26-5 record is the most wins in a season since 2002 as well.

With next year’s merging of JHS and NPHS into one high school for the new Jacksonville-North Pulaski School District, the decision was made just before the school year that all spring sports would combine this year.

That meant players from last year’s third-place Lady Red Devils and fourth-place Lady Falcons would be on the same team this year and play as Jacksonville Red Devils.

“The girls came together so well,” Hawk said. “We didn’t really know what to expect combining players, you know, not just from two different teams, but from fierce rivals. But it was just seamless. They took it in stride and they gelled and really all became good teammates.”

It’s just Hawk’s second year as coach of the JHS softball program, and he gives the credit for this year’s success to the players.

“I told them, I didn’t teach you all how to play softball, but you sure taught me how to coach it. It’s been one of the best coaching experiences I’ve ever had.”

Next year the team will be called the Jacksonville Lady Titans, and will have an almost entirely new lineup. Both pitchers, House and Loyd, who are also first cousins, graduate. As does starting shortstop Kinley Burrows, second baseman Bailey Holt, third baseman Emily Lovercheck and outfielders Zylah Richardson and Payton Mullen.