More than a decade of frustration was about to end last Thursday. The James Monroe High School softball team, whose consistent sectional championships could almost define the word perennial, were on the verge of a regional title on their home diamond.
For the first time since 1997, the Lady Mavericks were going to the state tournament — if they could hold on to a 6-2 lead over Westside for two innings.
Thunder rumbled between the fifth and sixth inning. Stiff, shifting breezes like those in advance of a Monroe County thunderstorm began to swirl across the field, lifting fine dust from the infield into the faces of fans.
Rain had been in the forecast, but luck had shone on the game. Now, no one from the James Monroe following wanted to face the prospect of a suspended game and yet another day of suspense in the Class AA, Region 3 championship.
Westside retired the Lady Mavs in order in the sixth, on five pitches from Cassidee Blankenship. James Monroe ace Mikayla Wickline returned the favor in the bottom of the inning, fanning three straight batters.
A couple of Monroe fans called out “Whoa!” as Wickline dispatched a Lady Renegade on three pitches, the last one a wicked fastball.
No one from Westside had gotten on base since the third.
The weather held up through the seventh and final inning. With Westside down to their final out, James Monroe coach Greg Wickline held a conference with some of his players near first base.
What followed was a 10-pitch duel between Mikayla Wickline and the Lady Renegades’ Stephanie Brown, who fouled off four pitches with two strikes before earning a base on balls.
The next batter issued a grounder to Hillary Hersman at second base, who carefully tossed the ball to Samantha Ferguson at first, ending the drama — and starting the celebration.
The victors huddled around the pitcher’s circle. From the middle of that group rose a strange sight, a metal crutch, held up high.
It belonged to senior Jenna Hancock, the Lady Mavs’ reliable catcher whose season was over due to a leg injury.
“I’ve been waiting to go (to the state level),” she said later. “We’ve been close, every single year.” She said gathering with her teammates at that moment was “exciting, but sad at the same time.”
She also said she would be in Vienna for the state tournament to support her team.
The girls and their families were soon joined by a few others in uniform, the boys from the baseball team, who had just returned from their own postseason battle. They had ended their season with a loss to PikeView in Mercer County earlier in the evening.
Their head coach, John Mustain, had been girls’ head coach 16 years ago when the Lady Mavs last reached the state level. Standing at the edge of the crowd, he recalled that they had played Sissonville in a state tournament game in Barboursville.
Then he said he remembered something else earlier that day. To get to the states, James Monroe had beaten Oceana in the 1997 regional championship.
Oceana was eventually consolidated into Westside High, which had produced Thursday’s regional finalist.
The tides of history past and present were converging.
How about the future? A glimpse there was literally just around the corner.
As I walked up the gravel road from the softball diamond past the baseball backstop, a familiar sound caused me to stop and backtrack. It was late in the day, I was tired, and I had a story to write on deadline. But I stopped.
I peered up the bank to see an adult in a black baseball cap, standing in the fading light, tossing grounders to two boys, probably 7 or 8 years old, stationed in a V-shape on the dusty infield.
“Plop. Plop. Plop.” That was the sound of ball landing in glove, a repetitive process that may lead to error-free Mavericks baseball, years in the future.
I also thought about the little girls and boys, beyond the outfield fence a few minutes earlier, who alternated watching the game with running wildly and rolling around in the grass. They may be the athletes of James Monroe softball and other sports sometime around the year 2025.
It was as though my day observing athletics had come full circle. I broke into a reassured smile.
Tom Bone is a Daily Telegraph sports writer and cartoonist who grew up in Monroe County. Contact him at tbone @ bdtonline. com.