A year ago, Pell City High School softball coach Terry Isbell was preparing his squad for its opportunity to compete in the Class 6A state tournament in Montgomery.
The cancellation of spring sports due to the COVID-19 pandemic cut short the Lady Panthers’ 2020 campaign, a journey Isbell said had loads of potential despite how the season started.
“We had growing pains at the beginning of the year,” Isbell said. “Last year, we were a very young team -- we’re still a young team. Our senior leader (Emily Butts), who was our senior pitcher, graduated, so it took us a while to mesh … but we were finally jelling. I think we were going to end up having a great year if all this hadn’t happened.”
Had COVID-19 not thrown a monkey wrench into the plans, Isbell said he believes the team’s early-season battles against a tough slate of opponents would have galvanized the group going into the later stretch of the season. Early in the season, Pell City lost to Vestavia Hills, Spain Park and Sparkman -- all 7A schools.
“The games that we lost early on were against quality opponents,” Isbell said. “There weren’t any bad teams that we lost to. I thought we’d kind of be struggling earlier (in the season), so I wanted to get some tough tournaments and tough teams under our belt.
“I felt like that was the thing we needed to do and I think it was going to help us in the long run. We didn’t get to see if it was going to help, but I felt like it was going to.”
The Lady Panthers ended their season with a 7-8 record after a 15-0 drubbing of Area 12 foe Clay-Chalkville at Pell City on March 12.
“That’s the only real positive, knowing that those seniors went out as winners,” Isbell said. “The majority of those players were on last year’s team, so they’re going to have a lot of memories from their high school career.”
Isbell said it was heartbreaking and disappointing his four seniors, Katie Henderson, Kelsey Watson, Lily Fincher and Mya McDaniel, didn’t get to finish their final season, but he understands the decisions made in the interest of safety for the players, community and the state.
“We hate it for them,” Isbell said. “Our girls worked extremely hard. The majority of them play summer ball, and we had a really great attendance in our summer program where we lift, run and do some softball skill drills.
“Of our seventh through 12th (graders), we had about 45 to 55 girls each day. That’s just a testament to these young babies (who) come and give up their summer.”
While the future remains uncertain, if spring sports resume in 2021, Isbell will have a young nucleus of talent to work.
“We’re expecting big things in the next two years from this group,” he said.
Isbell said plenty of his young players were beginning to emerge as standouts this past season, but two sophomore bats were scorching before the campaign was shut down.
“Madeline Houk and Evi Edwards were both batting over .400,” he said. “Both of them were just crushing the ball. I can’t remember how many home runs they had, but they had several home runs between them. They’re both going to be great players, but we’ve got a bunch of returners that have the potential to be outstanding softball players.”
Isbell said he anticipates this group will be eager once it’s allowed to work out, play travel ball and prepare itself for the next season.
“I’m thinking they’re going to be really hungry to compete and really appreciate getting to play again,” he said. “Who ever thought something like this would happen and the season would end? My 30-plus years, nothing like this has ever happened. We never thought it would happen. It didn’t even come up in a conversation that this could happen. I’m hoping they’re going to have an appreciation and love for the game and realize how quickly it can be taken away from them.”