Huddled on a bench in the welcoming shade of the dugout, former Bluffton High School pitcher Courtney Smith surveys her kingdom. Ahead of her lies a field, washed in the glow of nostalgia and late-morning sunshine.
In the middle of it all, her castle, the circle from which she and her right arm launched the dreams of a handful of girls to heights they'd never before achieved.
There, on a team full of stars, Smith -- named the The Beaufort Gazette and The Island Packet's All-Area Softball Player of the Year -- stood out both for her talent and her demeanor.
In that bittersweet moment, Smith smiled and looked almost longingly on a facility where she made her name, and where when she next returns, it will be only as a fan, not as the cornerstone player she grew accustomed to being.
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"When it happened, I didn't believe it was happening," Smith said of the Bobcats' run to the Class 4-A state title series, where they fell two games to one to Byrnes High School. "It just made me realize that it's going to be weird not trying to push for it again next year. I'm glad that we went out with a bang our senior year."
Bluffton, led by star third baseman Kim Kerby and all-state outfielder Morganne Parker, was a consistent force offensively. In fact, the only game in which the Bobcats were shut out all year was the championship decider, a 1-0 loss. Still, their regular and postseason dominance was predicated on Smith, a 5-year player for coach Bill Ball. Smith tallied nearly 40 appearances and a 1.10 earned run average, impressive enough to earn all-state honors. She struck out a whopping 269 batters in 178 innings, a workload that finally took its toll at season's end.
"I was pretty pumped," Smith said of managing the pressure that comes with playoff competition. "After states were over, I took three weeks off. It was needed. I threw over 36 games, I think, this season. I'm used to it."
Smith did most of it with her trademark sense of humor, on display no matter the situation.
"I try to stay up," Smith said. "I also learned that you have to be serious in a way, but too much seriousness will get people to stray away."
Even in the most tense of moments -- a bases loaded, no out situation in the postseason against rival Summerville comes to mind -- Smith is ready with a joke for her dad, a Bluffton coach, sitting in the first base dugout.
"It just comes with the position," Smith said. "You have to be mentally stable and you have to be in it all the time. If you stay together, everyone feeds off of that. You have to be that little spark. If you fall apart, it all goes downhill from there."
With the season over and graduation come and gone, Smith is already looking ahead to the next step in her softball career. She participated in all-star competitions last week and says she is excited to get on the field for Limestone College. Whatever happens, there can be no doubt she'll do it with a smile.
BALL COACH OF THE YEAR
One of Bluffton softball coach Bill Ball's finest accomplishments became the setting for one of his most trying weeks as a leader. Standing in the parking lot of Spring Valley High School - having dodged quarter-sized hail, having traveled hundreds of miles in five days, only to see his team fall into a deficit in the state championship series - Ball could only laugh at the circumstances.
With nothing more than a sardonic smile to give away his true feelings, Ball, as usual, took everything in stride. It's that attitude that has made him such a successful coach, and that mindset that helped lead his group of players to the school-record heights of a state title appearance.
"You can't imagine how much you miss these kids when they go," Ball said when asked to reflect on what he'll remember most about the season. "It's kind of heartbreaking."
Ball coached Bluffton to a 28-5 record and a Lower State championship. He did so with a group of experienced and talented players. Ball motivated his team and managed to push all the right buttons over the course of a dominant postseason, when the Bobcats' only seemed to get better as the pressure escalated.
"This is a special group," Ball said. "A lot of it has to do with the number of years I ended up spending with them."
So how has Ball's style shifted? He admitted that for a few years, he wondered when he would decide to stop coaching softball. Each time, however, he couldn't convince himself to walk away from the next set of students, ready and willing to learn.
"We get older and a little more mellow," Ball said of his composure. "I think I had to learn through the years. With the girls, they really get it. When you get girls to believe in each other, wow, do they support each other."
Most importantly, Ball said, he has found success by getting as much knowledge out of his players as they do from him. It's what will bring him back for another run next year, even after the loss of so many star seniors.
"You've got the new kids coming all the time," Ball said. "I like learning about them. No two kids, no two teams are ever alike. It's neat to kind of grow as a coach. If you are not a student, and you're not wanting to learn about the kids in the team and what they need, you can never teach them what you know."
Follow reporter Kendall Salter on Twitter: @IPBG_Kendall
The Island Packet and The Beaufort Gazette All-Area Softball Team
Player of the Year: Courtney Smith, Bluffton
Coach of the Year: Bill Ball, Bluffton
P - Courtney Smith, Bluffton
Stats: 26-5, 1.10 ERA, 269 K, 178 IP
Comment: Dominance in the circle and did damage at the plate, with a team-leading seven doubles
P - Selice Daley, Thomas Heyward
Stats: 15-8, 1.84 ERA, 185 K
Comment: Plenty more good to come from Rebels' ace, only a sophomore
C - Chelsea Welty, Beaufort High
Stats: .406 AVG, 12 HR
Comment: Eagles' MVP caught every game and picked off 10 runners
C - Hannah Cannon, Thomas Heyward
Stats: .458, 36 RBIs, 9 HR, .939 SLG
Comment: Freshman powered young Rebels team
INF- Kim Kerby, Bluffton
Stats: .443 AVG, 39 H, 7 HR, 44 RBI
Comment: Walk-off home run to clinch the Lower State championship was a highlight of Bobcats' playoff run
INF - Mari Cook, Beaufort High
Stats: .300 AVG, 6 HR, .565 SLG
Comment: Power hitter led the team in quality at-bats and walks, with a sparkling .975 fielding percentage
INF - Jordyn Parker, Bluffton
Stats: .430 AVG, 31 R, 40 H, 8 3B
Comment: Defense at shortstop coupled with outstanding speed created dynamic threat anywhere in the lineup
INF - Morgan Peeples, Thomas Heyward
Stats: .532 AVG, 21 RBIs, .550 OBP
Comment: Sophomore led the Rebels in on-base percentage and batting average
OF - Morganne Parker, Bluffton
Stats: .561 AVG, 60 H, 47 R, .595 OBP, 7 SB
Comment: All-state outfielder's slap-and-speed approach in the leadoff spot set the table
OF - Natalie Moore, Beaufort High
Stats: .369 AVG, .481 OBP
Comment: North-South selection and all-Region 8-AAAA showed off her arm and range in center field
DH - Olivia Walker, Whale Branch
Stats: .684 AVG, 19 RBIs, 15 SB, 78 K pitching, 3.05 ERA
Comment: All-state and all-region selection led Warriors at the plate and in the circle
Kyleigh Peeples, Battery Creek
Jenny Mullins, Beaufort High
Mikyla Houghlin, Bluffton
Lilli Otten, Bluffton
Caitlin Buckalew, Hilton Head High
Whitney Halley, Hilton Head High
Laynee Bryan, Thomas Heyward
Zoe Mitchell, Thomas Heyward
Tanasia Campbell, Whale Branch