By LARRY HYPES
Bluefield Daily Telegraph
TAZEWELL, Va. —
A new spark was just added to the Lady Rams.
Brienna M. “Bri” Sparks signed a letter of intent Monday to play softball at Bluefield College for the Lady Rams.
Sparks, a wiry senior multi-sport standout at Tazewell, is excited about moving some 12 miles up the road to continue her academic-athletic career.
“I visited several schools,” says Sparks, “but Bluefield was special. I felt right at home there and everyone was so special — very nice to me. I think it (BC) will be an excellent fit.”
Those words are music to first-year coach Randy Fielder, whose Lady Rams set a new school record for victories in 2012-13.
Fielder, in fact, joined Bluefield after a stint as an assistant coach at Tazewell, where his two daughters, Miranda and Madison, started for the Lady Dogs. Tazewell mentor Tom Keene worked with Fielder over the past decade on and off the field in a variety of projects.
“When I got the Bluefield College position back on August 7,” Fielder said, “I visited Bri’s home that very night and said I wanted her to play for the Rams when she graduated at Tazewell.
“This (signing) is a big day for Bluefield and for me. I first watched Bri in Little League and she has always been an asset to Tazewell softball.”
Sparks, a career .322 hitter with four home runs — including a grand slam last week in a shutout victory (she pitched, too) over Marion — has notched 258 strikeouts on the mound in the past two seasons, as she has assumed an increasingly active role on the field.
“Bri has really had to take on more of the leadership role,” noted Keene. “We have had several good players graduate recently and Bri is one of those players we have counted on. She has come through on the mound and at bat for us.”
Sparks has played since she was 7 years old, through high school and on a myriad of travel ball squads (currently playing for Dirt Devils) and has performed from Knoxville to Williamsburg to Florida.
As the primary starting pitcher now for THS, she presently holds a 1.82 earned run average over the past two seasons of heavy duty pitching. She has worked most recently with pitching coach Jerry Johnson from Beckley to perfect her game.
“I’m glad Bri can go on to play at Bluefield,” said Keene. “It means a lot to the family, and we can all watch her play now. Randy (Fielder) has done a good first-year job and I told him the other day I should probably ask him for a job when I retire at Tazewell.
“Not too many kids get an opportunity like this and I appreciate so much what Christi and Will have done for our program. They are tremendous parents and great friends.”
Bri Sparks said, “I’ve enjoyed playing but as a pitcher, so much of what happens depends on my teammates. Around the infield, outfield, behind the plate, they take care of me, they have my back. I appreciate them so much.”
Fellow senior Kayla McCroskey, who plays second base, said, “I’m so proud of Bri. She has been a great teammate and I’m sure she will do well in college.”
Shortstop Whitney Saunders added, “There was never a doubt in my mind that Bri would find a position at Bluefield. I’m happy for her — she works hard every day in practice and does a great job in games. I’m glad she is going on to play the sport she loves in college.”
THS principal Rodney Reid, who played basketball at Bluefield during his college days, noted, “I am very pleased Bri has chosen Bluefield. She is a fine athlete and BC is an outstanding school. Bri will do well academically and continue to make all of us proud of her.”
Sparks’ parents, Will and Christi, are equally pleased. Will has been a parent volunteer back to the days when Bri’s sister, Amber, played at THS. He has worked with Keene this season as a volunteer coach in the absence of Cherith Southworth, who took a spring leave of absence to have a son.
Will Sparks said, “I’m so proud. We have worked together since she (Bri) was 7 years old to reach this day. She has done well in school in the classroom and on the field. We have had so many people, coaches, friends, etc., to help us, including pitching coaches, over the years. I wish I could name everybody but I certainly thank them all now.”
Mom Christi not only attends every game but serves as softball boosters president, press box concession manager and keeps a scorebook while also helping with the sound system and any other chores that might arise when the Lady Bulldogs are involved.
“We have traveled all over, in the summers, during the season, and enjoyed every minute of it,” grinned Christi Sparks. “I am proud of Bri’s accomplishments on the field and she has always done well in her studies, too.
“It has been worth it — we look forward to having her close to home so we can continue to see the games. Bluefield College is an excellent school. Bri is a fine young woman.”
Fielder notes that three of the top 25 teams in the NAIA are on Bluefield’s schedule and even though BC, with some 600 students, is among the smaller schools in the tough Mid-South Conference, he is eager to be part of getting big results with players like Sparks.
“I want to be a better player at Bluefield, and I know I will have to improve,” said Sparks. “The college game is faster, most of the players there will be all-district or region, or better. I don’t want to be ‘good’ because ‘good’ is not enough for me — I will work extra hard to become a better player.”
Sparks has two sisters, Ashlee and Amber, and the family lives in Tazewell.