Shenandoah, Virginia - I was returning to one of my favorite places in the Old Dominion for a quick WALK down memory lane yesterday as my path took me to Page County High School. Head Coach Alan Knight and his Lady Panthers were set to host Rappahannock County on Senior Day and the Skipper was looking for some assistance with the pregame ceremonies.
There had been a stretch of years when I called each and every home game at the beautiful facility that rests atop of the hill in between Newport and Shenandoah. Two constants in those days were the level of intensity in the Coach and the level of success in the home team. While there is no official stats on the subject my best guess on my record behind the microphone there would be 87-2. You always knew that there would be plenty of fans in attendance and that the majority of them would go home happy.
Unlike the trips before when the drive started from neighboring Luray this day began on Groundhog Mountain just above Mt. Airy, North Carolina. The final tally would be 449 miles roundtrip but that's just a WALK in the park for the opportunity to help out a friend. Coach is closing in on 40 years with his Softball program and the pride he openly displays about his team and his players is something to marvel at everyday.
Like any well thought out plan there will be unexpected bumps in the road and the first one came in the form of a missing opponent. The two schools are separated by just 32 miles but there is a large mountain that sits in between them on US-211. First pitch is slated for 5:30pm and the Senior Day ceremony is to happen prior to the first pitch but the visiting Panthers had yet to arrive as the clock ticked towards 5:00. The good news was that there was nothing more to the late arrival then the fact that the team bus was late getting to the school, causing a tardy departure.
The Lady Panthers were honoring a Senior Class that had captured a State Championship with the hopes of adding another one later this season. The high school sports scene has been a make things up as you go scenario since the beginning of Covid last year. The biggest difference for the high school athletes versus the College athletes is the fact that you do not have the option of providing a ball player an extra season of eligibility to replace the one that was lost due to pandemic.
After missing their past season completely, the team learned that their 2020-2021 campaign would be reduced from the usual 20 regular season games down to just 12. The start of the season was pushed back deep into the Spring and while most schools celebrate Senior Day on the final home game of the year, this year the idea was to host the event as quickly as possible.
The quartet of players finishing their careers at PCHS have reached a pretty high perch atop the diamond in spite of losing an entire season.
Ms. Madison Ellen Gordon - 5 years in the program.
Ms. Taylor Renea Hankins - 5 years in the program.
Ms. Morgan Lillian Lucas - 5 years in the program.
Ms. Tana Marie Merica - 5 years in the program.
Five years committed to a Coach that is as committed to his craft as anyone I have ever met or watched work between the lines. That takes a special level of dedication from a high school player that is also trying to enjoy her teen-age years and prepare for College. Playing softball for Coach is not for everyone so lets all give a special tip of the cap for these four ladies.
The ceremony took place after the home team finished up their infield warmups and prior to RCHS taking theirs. The biggest difference from prior years was the lack of sadness that would be there when the players would pause to think about this time is the final time that I will be wearing this jersey and playing in front of these fans with this group of young ladies. No sadness shown because this chapter is just starting and the sky is the limit for this group.
First pitch took place at 5:35pm (game time temperature of 65) which in itself was impressive when you combine the late arrival and the ceremony. The event was behind us and the game was in front of us now when I realized that I had overlooked one thing. While I had followed my normal College routine of meeting with the visiting Coach and going over how to correctly pronounce each player on their roster, I should have noticed that unlike WVU-Tech where I already know how to say the home players names this was not the case today.
I mention this only because I am my own harshest critic and as much as Coach is miffed by an errors committed, I also am driven nuts by any goofs on my part. The moment that I glanced down to read Jocelyne Rinker's name I knew that I was in trouble. Unlike any other press box in recent years there was nobody standing beside me to ask for help. The biggest problem in doing any type of PA work is that if you make an error, unless someone helps you out you will then repeat said error. It urns out the correct way to say that is (joss-a-lin). To say that I missed that all 3 times would be an understatement and for this I sincerely apologize to her and her family.
With my goof behind us I will turn to the pitchers duel that played out in front of us, Claire Keyser of RCHS kept the home team off balance for most of the game while Hankins was her usual dominant self. Both hurlers went the distance for their team with Hankins fanning 14 and allowing just two base hits(one way a solo Home Run) and Keyser had her way with every batter not named Taylor Umberger. Umberger collected her third base hit of the game in the bottom of the 7th inning and it appeared that for the third time she would be stranded on base.
Page was down to its final strike when Kirsten Hensley turned on the only mistake Keyser made on the day and launched an 0-2 pitch deep over the fence in left center field. In a blink of an eye a pending RCHS celebration turned into another home victory after Umberger and Hensley circled the bases, producing the 2-1 WALK off victory. A perfect conclusion to an entertaining couple of hours!
The final WALK portion of the story is tied to the outfield fence where a stainless steel sign hangs honoring Bea and Charles Carter. Getting to WALK past that sign is equally satisfying as doing so to the sign on the front of the complex that reads Alan Knight Field. The day created a heartfelt memory during a rough patch. To the people that say you can't go home - maybe they just need to WALK there!