Members of May’s first-year softball program staying positive as season rolls on

Andrew Valderas Brownwood Bulletin
May Lady Tigers first-year head coach Grant Gooch offers words of encouragement between innings to his young squad of players during a March 27 matchup at district rival Santa Anna. Gooch and his players were in search of their first win of the season.

MAY — The May Lady Tigers don’t have enough talent. They don’t have enough experience. They are forced to play all their scheduled games on the road due to an unplayable home softball field that is barley adequate to practice on. It is a first-year softball program tagged with a rookie head coach whose team has, so far, been foreign to scoreboard success.

The Lady Tigers are winless and have had small improvements, yet it’s hard to notice from afar since opponents have seemingly blown past them as easy as scooping up routine ground balls.

But today is different. The Lady Tigers, for the first time all season, may have a chance to taste victory. It’s a sunny Friday afternoon when the Tigers are just about ready to get under way a District 9-2A matchup against the home team — the Santa Anna Lady Mountaineers — who also enter the contest winless.

Appreciated fan support

Crowds for each team have flooded the smallish bleachers at the secluded field, with a bevy of additional fans from each team either lying back on lawn chairs, watching the game from the inside of their cars or from sitting on the tailgates of their pickup trucks, still rooting for their respective teams, regardless of the records.

“That’s what I like most about coaching in a place like this,” said first-year May head coach Grant Gooch, 38. “I’m a small-school person, and the best thing about this job is the place, in a sense of community and family and responsibility,” added Gooch, a native of Ackerly, a town that barley exceeds a population of 200, and is about 130 miles west of Abilene. “It is deeper than other places that I’ve been. The girls (and fans) feel pride in their school and feel responsibility to uphold.”

Senior pitcher Amber Holster said, “That’s really how May has always been,” referring to the town’s cheerful reception toward the students’ athletic and academic programs.

The Lady Tigers have one of the youngest squads in the district and in the area, which is fitting for a first-year team because it usually draws more underclassmen than upperclassman.

Youthful bunch

The player roster consists of seven freshmen, five sophomores, five juniors and just two seniors. And unfortunately for them, the inexperience is starting to boil quickly when the game begins to heat up.

The Lady Mountaineers have opened an 11-6 lead midway through the fourth inning, and things are starting to look — once again — bleak for the Lady Tigers. With final scores as lopsided as 22-0 and 19-1 in previous games, the five-run deficit is the closet the Lady Tigers have been against an opponent this deep into a ball game.

But Gooch and assistant coach Craig Steele are calm in the midst of being on the opposite side of a three-run inning by Santa Anna. The players are also relaxed.

They are encouraging each other after a player commits an error, followed by uplifting words from their head coach between innings.

In for a rough ride

Gooch, who is also a History teacher at May’s Junior High and High School, said he had “no idea” that the school was going to have a softball team until it was confirmed just minutes after he finished coaching a girls basketball game a couple of months ago. Shortly after, Gooch said he simply asked the players afterward to “raise their hands” to see who was going to join.

“We anticipated growing pains, and (the girls) have accepted it,” said Gooch, who also steers the basketball, track and field and cross country programs. “They walk the halls happy, they come ready to go everyday, and they’re excited about this opportunity.

“They’ve bought into the ‘process and progress’ (motto), and we have to focus on how to improve in the next couple of seasons,” said Gooch, who is coaching at his fifth school in eight years with his only softball experience being an assistant for one season at Santo High School five years ago.

“Some of these girls haven’t even played softball before,” said Holster, a multi-sport athlete for the Lady Tigers who has played softball since she was 5 years old. “I feel all of us have improved in ways (since the start of the season).”

Holster’s statement was slowly inching toward justification, as her team showed signs of life and started to spark a rally that had the raucous Lady Tigers rocking the dugout in frenzied fashion like a caged tiger. Even Gooch showed some fire after his team scored five runs in the last two innings.

“I am a ruthlessly positive person, and I’m ‘loud, loud, loud,’ and scream at what they’re doing correct,” said Gooch, whose first gig was an assistant girls basketball coach at Dunbar High School in Fort Worth, after graduating from Angelo State University.

However, the Lady Tigers’ sudden excitement came to a screeching halt. A May batter was unable to score the winning run, as she grounded out to seal the victory for the opposing team. Ball game. Lady Tigers fall just short, 12-11, in a gutsy performance.

Searching for better days

Somber moods and emotions were visible when Gooch huddled his team next to the dugout for a post-game speech, reminding the girls that they played their hearts out.

This demeanor by Gooch wasn’t seen in the beginning of the year, as he was somewhat shy and timid with his players — which he is usually not, as he often engages in banter with them, whether it’s making a silly joke of what they’re wearing or bopping them over the head in the hallways.

“I was more scared the first workout than the girls were. It was (because of that) sense of anticipation of, ‘Here we go,’” Gooch said. “I really had to do my homework on preparing them, and it’s been frustrating just not being able to feel like I’m doing so as well as they deserve.”

Said Holster: “We want to win. It’s not always there, but there’s always next time. We show up and compete and always give a positive attitude.”

Since their March 27 loss at Santa Anna, the Lady Tigers have fell victim to their next two opponents, Richland Springs and De Leon. They have five games remaining on the schedule, with Goldthwaite slated for Tuesday.

“High expectations are (expected) every game, and the girls have been on board and saying, ‘Let’s do this,’” Gooch said. “If I expect them to go 100 percent, I need to do the same.”

Gooch doesn’t like to bring attention toward himself. In fact, every game he has coached in his career, he informs the radio announcer to not call his name during team player and coach introductions, insisting that his players receive the praise and recognition only. He said his dream is to reach the state tournament, regardless of sport, and follow suit.

“That’s my goal. It’s because of them,” referring to his girls. “I just stand there and clap. They’re the ones who are doing the work.”