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Spain Park Softball
Julianna Cross, left, and Jenna Olszewski celebrate after winning the North Central Regional.
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Spain Park Softball
Destini England made a big impact in the postseason of her senior season.
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Spain Park Softball
Kynadi Tipler gets a hug from Coach C.J. Hawkins after a big hit at Regionals.
It can be difficult in the moment to take a step back and look at the big picture.
After falling to Sparkman in the Class 7A softball state championship game, Spain Park’s players were understandably upset, not content with a runner-up trophy. The Lady Jags wanted the blue map, not the red one.
C.J. Hawkins tried to explain to her girls all they had to be proud of, from the trials faced all season long to having their backs against the wall and rallying three times in the state tournament to get to that point. At the moment, it likely rang hollow to the girls who laid it all on the line the last two days of the season in Montgomery. But it certainly did not diminish what they accomplished.
“Oh, I’m so proud of these girls,” she said. “They fought through so much adversity, and we’ve been through a tremendous amount of ups and downs, and they never gave up, so I’m real proud of them.”
In the 2016 season, Spain Park won the area tournament and the North Central Regional, the first time the school has been able to say that in the same year. The second-place finish at state was the best the program has done, eclipsing its fifth-place showing in 2014.
The Lady Jags had the opportunity to lay its head down after falling to the loser’s bracket with a loss to Sparkman after defeating Fairhope in its opening round game. In their third game of the day to start the tournament, Spain Park fell behind Central-Phenix City in the eighth inning, but the Lady Jags rallied to score three, win the game, and survive to see the next day.
“They’ve been resilient all year. They just don’t quit. I’m just very proud of them. They believed in each other, and they just kept fighting through,” Hawkins said.
That resiliency showed up on the final day, with two convincing defeats of James Clemens and Vestavia Hills to reach Sparkman once again in the final. The team lived up to its mantra, “#RTL,” Refuse to Lose.
Hawkins remembered the first day of the season, where her team rallied behind freshman Kate Campbell as she pitched 14 innings in two wins against Central-Phenix City and Beauregard. She saw some of the team’s great potential then.
She said her team began to believe that it had the tools to make a run after beating Vestavia Hills for the Area 6 championship, a team that defeated them a few weeks prior.
Hawkins said, “I felt like they had all the right ingredients and just tenacity and dedication to each other. They’ve had a good time, and they really have had a little bit of drama, and when you have upperclassmen that are playing at the next level, it always encourages the other ones to work harder.”
Those upperclassmen are Kynadi Tipler and Destini England, two seniors who will play softball at Delaware and the University of Alabama at Birmingham, respectively. Just having two seniors usually makes the future look that much sweeter, but neither will be easy to replace. Tipler finished her career with a .419 batting average, 10 home runs and 45 RBIs.
“The future’s great, but those two are going to be big holes. Just like any year, the leadership we had with the seniors, Kynadi played a remarkable third base and was constantly hitting bombs … and just a warrior out there,” Hawkins said.
England returned to the team late in the season, but her impact in 13 games matched that of anyone else. Key hit after key hit upon her return pumped her average up to .435 with 13 RBIs.
“Destini brought that extra spark, and she’s so competitive and just put us up to that extra level that we needed,” Hawkins said.
Texas commit Mary Katherine Tedder hit a school-record 20 home runs on the season. Auburn commit Jenna Olszewski missed more than 20 games due to injury, but returned to give her team a boost in the latter part of the season.
The pitching situation is set for years to come, as seventh-grader Annabelle Widra boasted a 13-5 record and became the team’s horse in the circle down the stretch. Freshmen Campbell and Caroline Kendrick also provided the bulk of the remaining innings.
More than anything, Hawkins said she saw her team build momentum toward the end of the season and rode that to a great finish.
“You have peaks and valleys, but they never gave up on each other, and they learned to just overcome, get better at their skills, and trust each other, and that’s the main thing you teach in team sports,” she said.
The program continues to climb, and now there is only one step left: a blue map.