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Superb season, but goal eludes Comets softball team

By any measure, the Halifax County High School varsity softball team has experienced vast success in the past decade.

A Northwest Regional participant in every year except one since 2003, the Comets made the state quarterfinals in 2007, and they returned to the quarterfinals last year, losing to eventual state champion Lee-Davis.

Halifax County recently ended one of the best three-year runs in school history, finishing with a 21-2 record in 2010, a 23-2 mark in 2011 and a 22-2 record this past season, with three straight Western Valley District regular season and tournament titles under their belts.

Halifax County came within one game of making it back-to-back state tournament appearances this season, absorbing an agonizing 10-8 loss to Osbourn Park in the Northwest Region semifinals, and it wasn’t as much the loss itself but the circumstances surrounding the loss that still haunt Head Coach Melanie Saunders.

“We always want to end on a positive note.  That’s what we as coaches preach to the kids, now matter what we’re doing whether a fielding drill, a hitting drill or whatever we do, always end on a positive, always end with something good, never walk away with a negative if you can help it,” Saunders emphasized.

That was not the case in the Comets’ final game where a controversial call gave Osbourn Park an extra out in the eighth inning, and the Yellow Jackets took advantage with a two-run homer to beat the Comets.

“This last game, in all my years coaching it hurt my heart more than any loss we’ve ever had,” Saunders explained.  “It’s kind of comparable a little bit to the loss to Osbourn in the Northwest Region finals in 2007 on the missed call at third base.

“There’s nothing you can do,” Saunders added.

“We had some cliques and some separation, and you can’t do anything with a team when there’s separation,” she pointed out.

“We (coaches) had a talk with them and it’s almost unbelievable how they came together as a team.  I’ve had good teams and good bonding before but it’s amazing what these girls did and turned the tables around, it was just unbelievable.

“Ending on that note was just heart breaking, you question and think what you could have done differently.

“I told the girls one error, one strikeout does not lose a ball game for you, different things came into play and we just got the short end of the stick.

“I definitely think we’re a better team as a whole, but it just wasn’t meant to be.”

Sports, like life itself, can be very unfair, Saunders continued.

“We’re softball coaches but also life coaches as well for as long as we’re with these girls,” she noted.

“We talk about a lot of things outside of softball.  It’s a lot more than softball for us, and this was a lesson although it was a hard lesson for us to learn.

“Sometimes you can give 150 percent and still come out on the short end of the stick.

“When you give everything you’ve got and walk away knowing there’s nothing else you could have done, that’s all anyone can ask of you on the field, in college, work or life in general.”

Halifax County loses eight seniors to graduation this season, a group that has provided outstanding leadership both on and off the field, according to Saunders.

Kate Bane, VeVe Brandon, Sam Gibson, Jennifer Lacks, Lindsey Wilkins, Kelsey White, Sydney Puryear and Jessica Velazquez have hung up the Comet blue and white for the last time.

“Every year we’ve had solid leadership, but this year leadership was just unreal,” Saunders pointed out.

She recalled driving past the high school softball field around 11 or 12 o’clock at night and noticing the lights were on, a sign some of her players were getting in some extra batting practice.

“I’ve never had that before,” she noted.

“Before practice, they have stuff already set out and they’re ready to go, getting the kids up in the dugout on they’re own and not looking to us to go it.

“It’s just been unbelievable, the positive attributes these kids brought to this team.”

The returning players from last year knew what coaches expected of them, and they communicated that to the new players, according to Saunders.

“That’s what makes Comet softball so successful, you give your all no matter what on game day, no matter what game, and it’s so unfortunate we’re sitting here rather than playing,” Saunders said.

“Life lessons, we live and we learn, and you learn something from something negative and positive.

“Look at how the game (Osbourn Park) went, down 5-1 and this one took it in stride, and the next thing you know we’re up 8-5.

“This team never quit, and I’ve had some teams in the past just as good physically who weren’t as strong mentally, and we worked on that the latter half of the season and the past two years.

“At this level, all teams for the most part will be good, you have to be mentally tougher, because the mental part of the game you sometimes overlook and that’s even more important than the physical part.

“The kids can come out here and drill, field and hit all they want, but if they’re weak mentally in a game, that ground ball that was easy during practice isn’t going to be so easy.

“Mental toughness has always been a key for us as coaches, to understand how strong it needs to be, because a lot of these kids haven’t been taught that.”

Next season presents a challenge, Saunders explained.

“As far as the talent and leadership we lose it will be tough, but as a coach you don’t run from something like that, you look at it as a challenge,” she pointed out.

“You have to go out there and prepare them, just like the kids who are leaving us.

“We’re definitely rebuilding next year, it may take a couple of years to get back to where we were this year, but the talent is there.

“It’s not about us as coaches, we’ve been there, it’s not about anything we do but what we all do as a team.

One large goal remains, that of a state softball championship, the Holy Grail for the Comets softball program.

“We have some goals yet to fill, absolutely,” Saunders said.