By Chris Whitfield
TUNNEL HILL — If Saturday night’s reception for the return of the Northwest Whitfield softball team was a big “Welcome Home” from Columbus after winning the Class 4A state title, Thursday’s celebration at the high school was a chance for the community to collectively declare, “We are the champions!”
Family, community members and the entire student body of the school turned out for a rally to recognize the team and its accomplishments Thursday afternoon at the gym. The program, hosted by football coach Josh Robinson, boys basketball coach Ryan Richards and boys track and field coach Chad Brewer, was a little bit pep rally and a little bit Vaudeville, but it was all about showing the softball team how proud the school is of the championship, its first in the fast-pitch version of the sport.
“It is such a reflection of their hard work and effort that they have put forth for a long time,” Northwest principal Britt Adams said of the event. “It is so great for our community and how great they love on these kids. It is a reflection of our student body that these girls mean so much. They are good kids, good athletes and good students, and it is just very special.”
With the school’s student body cheering, the drum line rolling and family members and fans poised with their camera phones, the Lady Bruins emerged from a curtain of smoke led by their three seniors — pitcher Emily Boyd, second baseman Karlie Henson and third baseman Mykeah Johnson — and head coach Jason Brooker bringing in the state title trophy over his head. The players were then crowned and given sashes before Robinson, Richards and Brewer recapped the season, the region title run and the state tournament.
Performances from the competition cheerleader squad and the school’s dance team also highlighted the event.
Afterward, the Lady Bruins were fitted for their state championship rings. For them, it was another great day in a week filled with special moments.
“Our students have given us so much support,” said Johnson, who led the team into the gymnasium. “Every time anyone in the hallway sees me, they say ‘Good job, state champ.’ Our teachers have really blown it out. Every class I walked into Monday gave me a round of applause. Our students and our teachers have really been celebrating it all week.”
Boyd said the reception the team got when they returned to classes on Monday was overwhelming.
“It was something. I’m pretty sure I had to say thanks like a million times,” she said. “But it felt really good walking through the hallways. ... It’s definitely a mark in history, and I think everyone appreciated it. Our goal going into the postseason was not to lose our last game, but only one team can win their last game. We just didn’t see why it would have to be anyone but us.”
Robinson said the idea of Thursday’s assembly was to keep the celebration rolling.
“When they won, Mr. Adams wanted to put something on for them, and we definitely wanted to do it,” he said. “Mandy Crossen, our cheerleading coach, came up with a lot of ideas, and coach Richards and I kind of had the idea that we needed some coaches of other sports to come together and show our appreciation.”
Brooker said the thought and effort put into the celebration was just another reminder of support throughout the school and the administration. It also offered the team a chance to let it all sink in, something Brooker said is finally starting to happen.
“It really happened, and this is pretty big,” Brooker said. “When you are in the tournament you aren’t thinking, ‘Hey, we might win state.’ But it has finally sunk in.”
Crossen, who helped put together the welcome the Lady Bruins received when they returned to the school on Saturday night, said she wanted to give the entire school and the community a chance to congratulate the team.
“These girls have done so much and accomplished such wonderful things, and we just wanted to make sure they got the celebration they deserved,” she said. “We had a lot of people out here on Saturday night to welcome them back from Columbus, but this was a chance for the entire school and the community to tell these girls how proud we are of them and what they have done for this school.”
Sallie Thomas, the mother of junior outfielder Colbie Thomas, said she was overwhelmed by the outpouring of support for the team from the community and the student body.
“When we came in, I was thinking maybe 40 or 50 people would be here, and there was 140 or 150 people here before the students even started coming in from class,” she said. “The students, sure they had to be here, but they could have just sat there, but they were so excited for these girls.
“And then to see the others who came out today ... we have some people who don’t have any family on the team, but they just like to watch good ball. We have some that were in Columbus for every game, and they have no dog in the fight, and that means so much to these girls.”
It was that sense of a community celebration that Adams said he was hoping for on Thursday.
“(Winning a state title) doesn’t happen very often, and we wanted to make sure that we gave everyone who wanted to be a part of this an opportunity to celebrate this accomplishment, because Columbus is a long way from Tunnel Hill,” Adams said. “We wanted everyone to have a chance to celebrate with them and enjoy this because these girls did this for Northwest High School, and that is what it is all about.”