Sports Columns

October 29, 2012

Marty Kirkland: ‘Best bus ride ever’

Lady Bruins, coach come together for a title

Jason Brooker has been a high school softball coach for a good six months. So by now, he has no doubt grown accustomed to hearing chanting, cheering and general good-natured screaming.

Saying you’ll be willing to listen to high school girls yell, “Let’s go Sally, hit it down the alley! Let’s go Grace, steal another base!” oh, about 5,000 times over the course of a three-month season is practically in the job contract.

But Brooker, who took over at Northwest Whitfield in May when Shane Ramsey stepped down after three seasons, was probably never so happy to be unable to hear himself think as he was Saturday night. That’s when his state champion Lady Bruins made a triumphant trip home from Columbus to Tunnel Hill, where he estimated a couple hundred fans were waiting in the high school’s parking lot.

They showered the team with silly string, affection and their own celebratory cheers as they stepped into the cool night.

“That bus ride home was the best bus ride I’ve ever been on,” said Brooker, who only had to hold the trophy up whenever the bus got quiet to get the ruckus started again. “Me and (assistant coach Scottie Kilgore) had been talking on the bus, trying to guess how many people would be there when we got back. We were way off, because it was a lot more than we thought.

“Then again, that didn’t surprise me, because the Northwest community supports everything. … That’s the good thing about Northwest. It doesn’t matter. Every sport, no matter how big or small, gets a lot of support.”

That wasn’t something Brooker began to feel only over the past few days, either. While the Beaverdale Elementary P.E. teacher was in a new role as the Lady Bruins’ head coach this year, he wasn’t entirely new to the program, having served as an assistant in 2006. Nor was he new to Northwest — the 1994 graduate was a baseball assistant at the school from 2000 to 2003 and again from 2006 to 2008.

And while Brooker may not have been there for the first three years of the most successful four-year run in Northwest’s fast-pitch history — the school’s legacy in the days of slow-pitch included a pair of state titles — he helped make sure the Class of 2013’s final go-round was a rewarding one.

Stepping into a program with legitimate state championship hopes might seem like something anyone would want, but the downside to that is as obvious as the fact that Emily Boyd would be pitching in the title game. Familiar or not, Brooker had some understandable nerves when he started.

“When I first met (the team) and talked with them, it was a little bit intimidating,” Brooker said. “But once I got to know them through the summer — they’re just kids. Goofy high school kids like I was, except they’re a lot more talented.”

The Lady Bruins were that. Should be next year, too.

A talented junior class will get the chance to build on what happened this year in Columbus, and the fact that several from that group made big plays in Saturday’s 2-1 extra-inning win against Madison County is surely a good sign.

However, before talk of next year comes up, it’s worth taking time to appreciate what Northwest did over the past four years as much as the past few days. There are countless little contributions that go into winning a title, and some of those will never be fully recognized. However, they did it. The Lady Bruins joined an elite group with their victory — only 23 teams from Murray or Whitfield counties have ever won a GHSA team sports state championship — and they should be afforded a little time to reflect. Although he didn’t have details as of Sunday night, Brooker said he’s been told the team will be celebrated by the school in some way soon.

The Lady Bruins are certainly worthy. While their title was not unexpected after two previous top-four finishes at state, it was dramatic, and their undefeated postseason is flecked with moments when things might have gone differently if someone had not stepped up. You know how it turned out, though.

“When I took the job, I knew a lot of people expected us to win it,” Brooker said. “But even if you are the best team, once you get down to Columbus, it’s kind of like a crap shoot, especially in the final four, when anybody can beat anybody. We had three one-run games there.”

And they won every single one.

You can say the same thing about the Lady Bruins this season as you can about Brooker.

When the time came to get the job done, nobody was disappointed.

Marty Kirkland is sports editor of The Daily Citizen. He offers his congratulations to the outgoing Lady Bruins seniors while admitting he would not like to hit against Emily Boyd, pitch to Mykeah Johnson or drive a liner toward Karlie Henson’s glove. You can write to him at martykirkland@daltoncitizen.com.

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