Story by: Griffin Pritchard | Publisher
CENTRAL ALABAMA SCOREBOARD OFFICE – The Benjamin Russell High Wildcats jumped off to a 3-0 season running the table in the Central Alabama Classic to advance to the championship where they knocked off Holtville to win it all.
Then things went south.
The Wildcats (3-2-1) dropped a road game to the Sylacauga Aggies and had the brakes beat off by Smiths Station at their place.
“That was just a horrible game,” said Jessica Johnson, coach of the Wildcats. “Against Sylacauaga, we couldn’t finish – didn’t finish. Smiths was just a horrible game. You go into the week knowing you have road games against two tough teams and we were prepared. On Wednesday (after the Aggies loss) we worked on defending the slap and the bunt. We went down and played Smiths and six of their first nine batters bunted and we couldn’t do anything with it. It’s frustrating because there is so much potential there. I think we have a very strong, young group. There are going to be a lot of positives this season. This group is going to do good things.”
But that’s the past and the focus is on what’s ahead.
“Softball is such a weird sport because you are so focused on that tournament at the end,” said Johnson. “The regular season games are important, because that’s where you get ready and get your experience, but ultimately it comes down to how you do in the tournaments. That’s what we’ve been harping on; playing well in the tournaments.”
The Wildcats, in the coming week, only have one game: a Thursday evening affair at the Charles E. Bailey SportPlex against Alabama Christian and then, that next day – they are going to get all the tournament softball they can handle.
Benjamin Russell will join 27 other teams as part of the Wetumpka High Tournament played at the Wetumpka Sports Complex and at Wetumpka High School.
The Wildcats are grouped with Southside-Gadsden, Brewbaker Tech and Prattville.
“We are excited about playing in that tournament,” said Johnson.
Tournaments – well softball in general in Alabama — has changed.
Johnson: “When I played, it used to be a pitcher’s game. We’d look at the schedule and see we were playing Hoover and we’d get excited. Let’s see how we are going to do against them. But now, it’s shifted to such a hitter’s game. Where one team can go and put 12 up on the board on one night and then lose by two a couple of nights later. It’s really gotten to the point where anybody can beat anybody.”
Which is what ultimately makes the season so exciting, especially in terms of area games.
The Wildcats are back in the area with Wetumpka and Stanhope Elmore and all three teams – inconsistencies aside – are having good seasons.
“We are going to have to work our butts off,” said Johnson. “We are in a highly competitive area, but that’s a blessing. Those are the games you want to play. You don’t want the games to come easy to you. You want to be pushed. That’s how you get better.”
In terms of scheduling, the area games will not be contested until the last two weeks of the season.
Johnson: “That’s going to effect the way everyone coaches those games.”
But Johnson can only control what’s in front of her right now: a group of Wildcats that were robbed of a much needed 2020 season.
“We knew we were going to be young in the circle,” said Johnson. “And because of that, we were going to take some bumps and bruises. Of all the things that Covid took away from us, the chance for ninth and tenth graders to grow up. But here were in a new season and I tell them, you aren’t young anymore. You may not have the experience but keep pushing.”
And to that end, Taylor Phillips and Ryann Rushin have responded. So have the Wildcats bats.
“We are swinging it much better this year than we were at this time last year,” said Johnson.
Brook Bowden and Chloe Davidson were two Johnson mentioned right off the bat. No pun intended.
“Emma Tapley has hit a few bombs for us,” Johnson said. “I’ve been very pleased.”
She thought about it for a minute and then added: “Morgan Phillips has stepped up big as a freshman taking over the starting role in centerfield and in the leadoff spot.”
The main focus – and it’s the same for a lot of teams at this point in the season – is conditioning. Not being able to finish 2020, and then not having a travelball season has left a lot of players across the state using the 2021 season as their conditioning program.
“We’ve got to get back into shape. We are not where we need to be right now,” said Johnson. “We are changing the way we are doing things and trying to get legs back under our pitchers.”
That’s going to be key as they move forward – as all teams move forward – because most in-season tournaments are played with a time limit. Hence the one in the Wildcats 3-2-1 record.
They ran out of time against Central-Clay County in the BRHS tournament. Postseason games are all seven inning affairs.
That’s where depth comes into play – as the Wildcats are able to field a varsity, a junior varsity and a middle school program.
“This is the first year having all three teams back,” said Johnson. “We were very excited at tryouts when we were able to field a middle school team this year. Being a 6A program, we need to have all three teams competing. It’s great and gives the girls the opportunity to pitch and to grow and to play and not just be cut down to a JV/Varsity.”
Johnson – who is a BRHS grad herself is no stranger to good softball.
“We are excited to play this season,” said Johnson. “They are a great group of girls. It’s going to be a fun year.”
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