July 25, 2013 10:25:03 PM
Adam Minichino - [email protected]
Cass Tapley doesn't know how it happened.
The only thing Tapley knew is he wasn't going to sit by and watch something he and his family helped build potentially fall by the wayside.
That's why after a one-year absence Tapley will be back on the sidelines today when the Hebron Christian fast-pitch softball team kicks off its season at home against Jackson Academy.
The biggest difference will be Tapley won't be coaching any of his kids. In recent years, Tapley coached his daughters Magen and Chloe to some of the program's best seasons.
A year ago, though, Chloe Tapley opted not to play softball and Cass Tapley decided to step away from coaching softball. He said Thursday the uncertainty surrounding the softball program and the possibility there wouldn't be a team was too much for him, so he elected to return to coaching.
"I worked too hard to let that go," Tapley said, referring to the possibility Hebron Christian wouldn't have a fast-pitch softball team this year. "We dove into it. We played a little bit this summer, and it has been all right. I have been getting used to the girls because I have never coached these girls as the primary players."
Tapley has a roster of 20 players, which is up from last season when longtime assistant coach David Hudson replaced Tapley. Hudson will return to his role as assistant coach to help lead a team that has only one senior (Subrina Oswalt) and two juniors (Shelby Arnold and Savannah Gable). Simple math tells Tapley and Hudson that underclassmen and middle schoolers make up the rest of the team. Ten of the remaining players are in middle school, while four more, including Hudson's daughters Holly and Millie, are freshmen.
The Lady Eagles' youth suggests that this season will be another one based on building, much like the 2012 campaign when the team won only one game. That doesn't faze Tapley because he sees the players' potential.
"We will be competitive," Tapley said. "We have some talent. The average age of our starters is like 14 years old. About 12 of the players are what I would consider varsity."
Like with many young fast-pitch teams, Tapley said pitching will be a key. He said he likes the team's defense, which he said could compare to some of his best teams in recent memory, likely be a strength. If that's the case, he said it will come down to pitchers like freshman Rebeka Joy Falkner throwing strikes and giving the Lady Eagles a chance to make plays.
"We have six girls who can pitch," Tapley said. "If we throw strikes this year we will go to the playoffs."
Tapley said it has been fun working with a young group. He said he coached the team one time last season and saw parts of several other games. While he knows the Lady Eagles didn't have a lot of success in the win column, he knows the returning players are competitors and that they want to get better because they have come back for more.
As a result, Tapley said his job will be to help instill a sense of urgency in the young players and show them how hard they will have to work to reach the level of past Hebron Christian teams that challenged for a Mississippi Association of Independent Schools Class A state title.
"The fact that they stood out there and lost so many games and are still playing ball says something about them, Tapley said. "I have to keep telling myself that they are just ninth- and 10th-graders. They are almost where they are supposed to be, but they are not quite old enough."
In Tapley, Hebron Christian appears to have the right man to help the softball team realize its potential, even if the veteran coach doesn't know how he arrived back in the familiar spot.
Today, it will be like Tapley never left.
"We started practice three weeks ago and we were going four days a week," Tapley said. "I could tell that was different for them. In the past, they had a minimal amount of practice, so they are getting used to that. They're doing everything I ask them to do. I have to give them credit for that."
Adam Minichino is the Sports Editor for The Commercial Dispatch.