By Will Johnson
GRAPELAND – A year ago at this time, the Grapeland Sandiette softball team was struggling. The team had made the playoffs, but youth and inexperience took its toll as the Sandiettes were bounced from the playoffs in the first round.
Fast forward a year and Grapeland has had a resurgence in its softball program. The team has gone from fourth place in the district standings to being crowned as district champions. They sport a #16 ranking in the latest Texas Girls’ Coaches Association poll and seem poised to make a deep playoff run.
The Sandiette rejuvenation is due in large part to the team’s senior leadership coupled with a freshman phenom in the pitcher’s circle.
Before the Sandiettes began their playoff run, seniors Madison Holbrook, Taylar Mullen and Hailee Sheridan, along with freshman Cadie Belle Currie sat down with The Messenger to discuss how Grapeland softball seems to have returned as a force to be reckoned with.
“I think all of us knew last year was a rebuilding year for us. Coach (Joel) Barbosa was new and we literally started over completely. No one was in their usual spot and we kind of knew we probably weren’t going to go as far in the playoffs as we had in previous years,” Holbrook said.
“Everything was different last year,” Sheridan said. “Madison had I had been in the outfield before and we were put in the infield. We didn’t have a dominant pitcher like we did in the past. Everyone was switched around all the time. Taylar was bounced from shortstop to pitcher. Hannah (Chipman) was bounced from second to short and I was bounced from third to short. It was a building year.”
Mullen said she was in complete agreement with her teammates.
“It was more of a learning experience rather than ‘let’s see if we can win state this year.’ We had a lot of incoming freshmen who had a bigger role to play than previous freshmen. Like Haylee Reed, she had to come in and pitch against Joaquin (in last year’s playoffs). In the end, I think it was a little bit of devastation when we lost because we all love the sport. But I think we were all looking forward to this year,” Mullen said.
The Sandiettes opened the 2017 season by going 11-3 with their three losses coming at the hands on Westwood (3-7), Trinity (4-5) and Shepherd (3-4). Following the loss to Shepherd, Grapeland rattled off four straight wins before they lost to the Normangee Lady Panthers by a score of 7-4.Normangee is currently ranked seventh in Class 2A and Sheridan said the loss was a result of a lack of focus.
“We just didn’t have our heads in the game. People were more focused on what was going on outside of the game and with the umpires. They were more worried about that than the game and we got off track,” she said.
“It was hard because we knew we could beat them,” Holbrook added. “It just gets under your skin because we knew we could have beat them into the ground had we played well. We just didn’t have our head in the game.”
A new face on the Sandiettes softball team in the 2017 season is freshman pitcher Cadie Belle Currie who said being asked to start in the circle was a little stressful.
“I was really nervous at first. I have played a lot of softball before but it’s nerve-racking, pitching as a freshman. Playing every game is exciting but I was very nervous in the first game,” Currie said.
One thing benefitting Currie’s performance on the year has been a strong defensive infield.
“We’ve been able to adjust by moving people around and the defense has gotten better. It’s also nice having these three coming in to talk when things aren’t going so well. The single most important piece of advice any of them have given me is to calm down. When I get worked up – when I walk somebody or hit somebody – they’ll come to me and tell me to calm down. It will be fine and take a deep breath,” she said.
“It’s just the fact she wants to impress and satisfy us,” Mullen explained. “She is so worried that Coach Barbosa and we are having the season of our lives that she stresses out so much.”
Mullen was last year’s normal, every game pitcher but will be the first to admit she’s not a pitcher.
“Last year, honestly, it was embarrassing. Knowing that I’m about to get my socks knocked off is so nerve wracking and Cadie is a million times better than I am. She is very strong in the circle and at what she does so that’s a good reason not to be nervous,” she said.
The four Sandiettes were quick to point out the team is very young. Holbrook, Mullen and Sheridan are the only seniors on the team. There are no juniors, five sophomores and five freshmen.
And they’re fast!
“Haylee Reed is so fast, all she has to do is touch the ball and she’s safe. The same goes for Diamond (Maines-Dunn) and Taylar. A lot of people have said a lot of bad things about our small-ball that we play, but it has sent our stats through the roof. The first part of our line-up is slappers and bunters and they know thei
r role. They go up there and put the ball in play and then me, Hailee and Cadie Belle try and drive them in. We’re so fast,” Holbrook said.
“People know what we’re going to do,” Sheridan said. “They know our first two hitters are going to go up there and slap or bunt but they still haven’t been able to shut it down. We haven’t had to change our game.”
As the conversation continued, the subject of adversity was discussed. Very few teams go through an entire season without having to deal with some sort of internal or external strife and the Sandiettes have been no different. One player is no longer on the team, another was suspended for disciplinary reasons but has since rejoined, while assorted injuries have limited the performance of other key players.
“I think the biggest thing about losing or having to adjust to players being gone was being a team as a whole and having that connection. At practice, we wouldn’t just work on just one thing. We would have someone work in the infield and in the outfield. We know we’re going to face adversity. This is Grapeland, Texas. We know it’s going to happen at some point. Facing adversity last year helped us prepare to face it this year,” Holbrook said with a laugh.
“It affected us a lot at first,” Currie said. “We were able to move things around and we seem to be doing better now than we did before. I think that is what makes us a really good team. We can adapt to adversity.”
While discussing the topic of team adversity, the Sandiettes lone district loss to the Centerville Lady Tigers was discussed at length. Centerville finished the District 20-2A season with a 3-9 record and failed to make the playoffs.
“We went into that game thinking let’s win this game and go home or let’s go to Texas Burger and eat. Then we got out there and their hitting game was on that day and our game, as a whole, was off,” Mullen said.
In the game, the Sandiettes committed eight errors in the field and Currie was asked for her thoughts on the defense behind her.
“It stressed me out. I realized, though, I could still count on them to make plays. I was hitting my spots and they were making plays but the errors kept happening. Still, I never doubted them. I didn’t ever get on them…” Currie said.
“She showed us we were slacking and needed to step forward. She wasn’t rude about it. Cadie isn’t the typical freshman who stresses and is a time bomb waiting to explode. She kept her composure,” Mullen explained.
“She tells us ‘Hey guys. Quit sucking,’ in a very nice way,” Holbrook said as all four burst into laughter.
As to how Currie has started to develop into a team leader, Holbrook elaborated.
“There won’t be any seniors on the team next year,” she said. “It’s nice to know that we have someone coming up in Cadie Belle who will take over our role. You don’t want to have a person who has a bad attitude and blows up all the time. She can keep her composure in tough situations. It’s nice to know she is that type of person.”
“We all came in and we were expected to be leaders as freshmen. We stepped into some big shoes and over the past years, freshmen have stepped up but known of them have been a leader like Cadie Belle. She came into the game knowing what to expect. She knew we had her back but she also knew she would have to step up, learn from us and learn the game well enough to bring it to the new kids next year,” Mullen said.
“I don’t even look at Cadie Belle as a young freshman,” Sheridan said. “I look at her as one of us. I see her as a softball player. If you’re being a leader, you’re being a leader no matter how old you are. Cadie Belle is a leader and she’s been doing a really good job at it.”
Will Johnson may be reached via e-mail at email@example.com.