Former Hardaway High pitcher Amber Browning returns to Lady Hawks softball program as coach

Special to the Ledger-EnquirerAugust 9, 2012 

There's a saying that goes, "You can't go home again."

Well, don't tell that to former Hardaway softball standout Amber Browning as she prepares for her first season as coach of the Lady Hawks.

"It's really exciting," said Browning, whose team opens the regular season today at the Jordan Invitational at South Commons. "I helped build the program with coach (Marty) Richburg and my former teammates, and it's exciting to have this opportunity to come back here and keep that legacy going."

Browning was the Ledger-Enquirer Softball Player of the Year in 2001, finishing her career with 56 wins and 585 strikeouts. She led the Lady Hawks to a second-place finish in the 2001 Georgia High School Association Class AAAA state tournament, two years before Hardaway won a state title.

Following her time at Hardaway, Browning went on a softball odyssey that took her all over the country before leading her back to Columbus. Browning went to Gulf Coast Community College in 2003-04 and helped lead the Lady Commodores to the National Junior College Athletic Association tournament title game before placing second.

In 2005, at West Florida, Browning went 35-5 with a 0.68 ERA and 380 strikeouts in 267 1/3 innings. Her ERA, strikeout total and 18 shutouts are still single-season records at West Florida, and she ranks in the top five of several other categories.

After sitting out the 2006 season, Browning came to Columbus State in 2007 and won her first 25 decisions before losing to Armstrong Atlantic State in the NCAA Southeast Regional tournament, a loss that snapped the Lady Cougars' 37-game winning streak.

That season, Columbus State went on to finish 58-5, one win short of the national title game. Following that season, she played for the Michigan Ice of the National Pro Fastpitch League.

After finishing the season with the Ice, Browning got a phone call that started her on the coaching path.

"I never really knew I wanted to coach," said the 28-year old Browning, who spent the past two seasons as an assistant coach at Northside. "I always knew I wanted to be a teacher and wanted to make a difference in kids' lives since I had people make a difference in my life.

"But when I came back to Columbus, one of my former coaches from the Georgia Challengers, Jill Carlson, called me and asked about giving pitching lessons. She told me that I have too much knowledge to not coach.

"Giving pitching lessons made me realize the game gave a lot to me, and I decided I was going to try and give back to the game since it gave so much to me."

Browning gave pitching lessons until 2010, when she got another phone call, this one from Northside coach David Smart.

"(Smart) was a teacher and coach at Hardaway, and he left the year I came to Hardaway," said Browning, who will teach math at Hardaway. "I knew him through my dad, and when he got the job as head softball coach, he called me because he's a baseball guy, not a softball guy.

"He asked if I'd want to come help him out. I prayed about it. I knew I wanted to teach, but I wasn't sure about coaching. I decided to take it, and (Smart) gave me full control of the pitching. It was fun working with him and the coaching staff over there. It was a good fit for me."

While accepting an assistant's job at Northside was something Browning had to put some thought into, Browning said taking the reins as the head coach at Hardaway was a much easier decision.

"I heard during last softball season that (former coach Chris Gilstrap) was going to focus on baseball, but I never heard anything official about the job coming open," said Browning.

"I applied for a math position through the county and (Hardaway principal Matt Bell) -- who was my former civics teacher -- called me and we talked about not only the math job but softball as well. I was pretty quick to take the job when they offered it to me. I knew if I couldn't stay at Northside, I'd really enjoy working at Haradaway. To be able to work at Hardaway and get to be the head softball coach is pretty special."

Hardaway finished second in Region 1-AAAA last season, losing a three-game series to Greenbrier in the first round of the state playoffs. This season, the Lady Hawks will be a part of the realigned Region 1-AAAAA along with Harris County, Northside, Bainbridge, Thomas County Central and Lee County.

"We only have two seniors coming back, and with the players not knowing me and me not knowing them, the first few practices were slow," Browning said. "Nobody knew what to do. But now the seniors have opened up and become leaders, the kids are knowing what to do, and the girls have come a long way.

"We have a good mixture of players. Even though we have some sophomores and juniors, a lot of them haven't played in high school, and high school is a whole different level of playing. That's why I'll be interested to see how we play in games."

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