By Chris Whitfield
Pictures of Dalton High softball standout Allie Blackwood were displayed as friends and family gathered at the school Monday to celebrate the senior signing a scholarship with Austin Peay.
Looking at the board, Blackwood saw a much younger golden-haired girl with a bat resting on her shoulder looking back at herself.
“This was always my dream and it is so exciting that it is finally happening,” Blackwood said. “I have played softball since I was really little, and I have worked so hard and put so much into it. I am so excited.”
It’s a rewarding ending to Blackwood’s high school career after leading the Lady Catamounts to a surprise appearance in the Class 4A state playoffs this fall. The right-handed pitcher was 11-7 with a 1.75 ERA and 104 strikeouts in 115 innings pitched during her final season. While pushing the team to the second round of the state playoffs, Blackwood won five straight games in the postseason, starting with a good run at the Region 7-4A tournament, where the Lady Cats finished third despite entering as the tournament’s lowest seed.
A third baseman when she isn’t on the mound, Blackwood also batted .443 with 11 doubles and 23 RBIs this year.
“I had so much fun,” Blackwood said. “My teammates are my best friends. I love being around them, and coach (Jeff) McKinney is great. We all worked hard, and the team had a lot of faith in each other. We got as far as we could.”
Austin Peay, a Division I school located in Clarksville, Tenn., is looking to rebuild its softball program. Head coach Casey Dickson’s contract was not renewed after he went 62-144 in his four seasons leading the team, and in 27 years of existence, the Lady Governors have just three winning seasons — the last a 28-22 campaign in 1993.
Austin Peay finished the 2011-12 season with a 19-31 record and a 10-20 mark in the Ohio Valley Conference. Stephanie Paris, a native of Brentwood, Tenn., who was a standout player at UT-Martin (another OVC school), was hired this spring after working five seasons as an assistant coach at Division II’s Colorado State University-Pueblo. She will be switching places with her previous boss — CSU-Pueblo coach Shane Showalter joined Paris’ staff as an assistant coach after 11 years in Colorado.
Blackwood isn’t discouraged by the Lady Govs’ past struggles.
“Especially with them having two new coaches, they are really excited about building the school back up because you don’t think of Austin Peay as being a softball school,” Blackwood said. “I am really excited to be someone they think will improve their program and can build around. I love their coaches, and they sound like they are going to work hard, and that is what I expect to do.”
Blackwood is Austin Peay’s fourth signee in this year’s November signing period, joining pitcher Sidney Hooper of Walker Valley (Cleveland, Tenn.), utility player Christiana Gable of Ezell-Harding (Nolesville, Tenn.) and catcher Chandler Groves of East Robertson (Cross Plains, Tenn.).
“Allie has great movement on the ball,” Paris said in a release from the school. “I see her complementing two of our other pitchers who throw hard. She’s going to be a great addition to our pitching staff for the 2014 season.”
Dalton finished this season 15-19, sweeping Redan convincingly in the first round of the state playoffs before being knocked out by Columbus in the second round. McKinney, who replaced Bobby Brotherton as coach prior to this season after serving as an assistant previously, said Blackwood was the consummate “go-to” player.
“I didn’t have to put anything on her because she puts a lot of it on herself,” McKinney said. “That is one of her greatest strengths and one of her biggest weaknesses. She puts a lot on herself, and when she isn’t performing at her best, she gets frustrated.
“Where we worked with her to help her get better this year was not letting herself get mentally defeated. She puts so much pressure on herself because she wants to succeed. She wants to do well. She wants to get a hit every time she hits. She wants to get every batter out when she pitches. That is just her.”
Blackwood focused on the upside in her approach, though.
“That is true,” she said of McKinney’s assessment. “I guess it is just in me. I have turned down fun weekends and dances and parties with my friends just so I can practice, because this has been my dream and I am finally getting to live it. Working hard has paid off, and I am just so thankful for the abilities I have been blessed with.”
The daughter of Bill and Jane Blackwood, Allie credited her father with instilling that drive and her fun-loving spirit.
“My dad is a character, and there is no way I would be where I am without that,” she said. “You talk about my drive, he lights a fire under me and pushes me to keep working, and he preached that idea of outworking the other player when I was little, and I would never be the player I am without my dad. He is like the coach I have that isn’t on the field.”
Blackwood chose the Lady Govs over offers from Mercer University and Florida Atlantic. She also had interest from Tusculum College and Furman University, but she said her visit to Austin Peay was enough to convince her where she needed to be.
“None of them felt quite right like it did when I walked onto the campus at Austin Peay,” Blackwood said. “I loved the campus. The coaches were very inviting, and I could get personal with them. That was really important for me to have that relationship. They wanted to have my trust and the trust of my parents.”