By Earl Vaughan Jr.
It’s been just over a year since the COVID-19 pandemic brought high school softball season to an early end for the Cumberland County Schools.
As competition officially resumed earlier this week, two of the schools with recent success, Gray’s Creek and Jack Britt, are finding their way back to top form. Meanwhile, they are still dealing with safety protocols to prevent the disease from surging again.
The road back to playing started after play was shut down last year, as coaches worked out alternate ways of staying in touch with their players and encouraging them to practice in whatever way they could.
Gray’s Creek coach Stuart Gilmer started an online chat group with his players. He estimates about half of his team was able to participate in travel softball during the offseason once restrictions were gradually lifted.
Jack Britt coach Sebrina Wilson said assistant coach Joe Myrtle started a Facebook page for the team where they kept up contact, along with offering a schedule of home workouts the players could do that emphasized different aspects of conditioning.
Now that they’ve been officially on the field since March 1, Wilson said the focus has been on practicing as much as possible so they can, as she put it, knock the rust off.
The biggest area where the players have suffered is hitting, Gilmer said. “You could only do so much by yourself hitting-wise,’’ he said, noting that a lot of players were limited to hitting the ball off a tee.
“Once restrictions were lifted, they worked out with travel ball teams at facilities that were open,’’ he said. “But some just weren’t able to.’’
The other problem is the long separation from being around teammates, both in the school hallways and on the softball field.
“You get used to being with that person, then all of a sudden you’re separated,’’ Wilson said. “It’s getting them back in game shape and game mind with each other.’’
Gray’s Creek and Jack Britt have the benefit of being led by standouts who have already committed to play college softball. Jaden Pone of Gray’s Creek is headed to Longwood, while Britt’s Carlie Myrtle will be attending the University of North Carolina.
Both Pone and Myrtle experienced challenges in getting in workouts during the long layoff.
Pone felt the long layoff may have been of some benefit to her. During the 2018 travel ball season, she broke both the major bones in her right leg and spent six months undergoing rehabilitation.
Although she returned to the Bears’ lineup in 2020 and got off to a sizzling start in the abbreviated season, she felt the extra time off may have been a blessing to her more mentally than physically.
“After having more time to focus on myself and my mechanics, I realized maybe I wasn’t back to where I thought I was,’’ she said. “After the quarantine and we got to the field, I felt a lot more confident in my game than I did before.’’
Myrtle, who is a pitcher for the Buccaneers, found the layoff a challenge because she didn’t get regular workouts with the same catcher. “One day I’d have one catcher, the next day a different one, then a third one,’’ she said. “The most frustrating thing was finding the right schedule.’’
Wilson said Myrtle has always had great control and spent the offseason working on a changeup. “The more she can keep people off-balance, the better,’’ Wilson said.
Pone still lives with the memory of seeing last year’s senior class have competition taken from them by the pandemic. “This year we want to keep an open mind and be able to adjust with all the new things being thrown at us so we can continue and finish this season out,’’ she said.
“I feel like the biggest thing we have as a team is the bond we have on and off the field. That really carries into the way we play, just keeping each other up and holding our heads up, not playing for just one person.’’
Myrtle said just being back on the field is a positive, helping to clear her mind of fatigue caused by the ongoing threat of the pandemic.
“It was definitely hard on us,’’ she said of the layoff. “We don’t want to let it slip away. It could end at any point with COVID.’’