Posted Date: 05/25/2017
NONTRADITONAL BLUEPRINT FOR VERNON’S SUCCESS
Let’s say you’re a softball coach starting a program from scratch. You’re allowed to choose a few traits that would likely produce a state title contender.
A shutdown pitcher is obviously at the top of the wish list. It’s arguably the most crucial position in a team sport besides quarterback. Vernon has that with junior Jade Guzman.
But the rest of the Lady Lions’ attributes don’t follow your typical blueprint for success, making this year’s historic run to the regional finals even more remarkable.
Let’s start with depth, which can be a key asset for teams during a demanding three-month season, but definitely not a luxury Vernon coach Jena Cecil had this year.
The Lady Lions have only 11 players on their roster. If there was a track meet or other event during the hectic spring, it wouldn’t be surprising to see only five or six players at practice.
In fact, Vernon had to drop out of the Sunrise Tournament in March because two girls were injured and another was attending the state powerlifting meet.
“Sometimes we had to do different drills because there wasn’t a lot of people,” Guzman said. “Not many of the girls just play softball, but we did what we could.”
Senior leadership – now there’s an asset coaches would purchase by the bushel if it was for sale in supermarket aisles.
Vernon has one senior on the team, and she usually doesn’t even swing the bat. Cali Brints starts in right field, but her younger sister Caitlin takes her place in the batting order.
They have twice as many freshmen starting in the infield. Shortstop Caroline Taylor is leading the Lady Lions with a .639 batting average, four homers and 38 RBIs all the while fielding one of the most important positions in the game.
Then there’s ninth-grader MaKyleigh Leija manning first base. Cecil said she’s started off more than one rally lately with her bat.
You know what can help win some tight games when the going gets tough? Tradition. There are successful programs in the past that can lean on their history.
Well, the Lady Lions had only advanced three rounds deep once before Cecil took the program over. There are a couple holdovers from the 2015 regional quarterfinalist squad, but most the girls hadn’t won a playoff series before.
Cecil isn’t your typical high school coach, either. She spends her days as a school nurse and her afternoons preaching patience at the plate and technique on the softball diamond.
To be fair, Vernon returned Guzman plus last year’s 5-4A Offensive MVP in Avery Kinney, top newcomer in catcher Lauren Hager and a couple first-team all-district selections in second baseman Shykerra Fanner and outfielder Audrey Graf.
That the Lady Lions have fielded a competitive team this spring should surprise no one. That they’ve gone 7-0 in the postseason after getting bounced in bi-district a year ago should raise some eyebrows.
“It doesn’t shock me that we’re here,” Cecil said. “At the beginning of the year, we struggled with numbers and it kind of was a toss-up. I didn’t know where we were going to be, but now that we’re here, it doesn’t shock me with the players that I have.”
Neither Vernon nor Andrews finished first in their district. In fact, the Lady Lions and Lady Mustangs knocked out each other’s district champ last week.
One of them will be packing their bags next week for Austin.
It would be an unexpected journey for the Lady Lions. This year, at least. Next year they won’t be overlooked in the least bit.