There was a time early in the season with Central softball coach Matt Bell knew something wasn’t quite right.
In his first season coaching the team, he felt like he was doing a good job, but that the team was still missing something. He called junior third baseman Katie Webb one night after a tournament to discuss the problem.
“She said, ‘Coach, we understand what you’re doing, that you’re coaching us hard,’” Bell explained on Tuesday. “‘I can take anything you put on me.’ But, she said, ‘Coach, the one thing you’ve got to understand about girls is that they’ve got to feel good to play good.’”
Webb explained it further.
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“Guys have to play good to feel good,” she said. “Girls are the opposite. I just said, let us play loose. And that’s when we started doing well.”
Since starting the season 2-4, the Lady Red Devils have gone 26-5-4 and will begin play against Thompson in the Class 7A state softball tournament on Wednesday in Montgomery, Ala.
“From that point forward, I took that to heart,” Bell said. “We have a very mature bunch. They know what I expect, and we feel like if we can go get to our standard, the only team that can beat Central is Central.”
Though it may sound cliche, the players on Central said they felt like this team, more than any they’ve been on in the past, feels like a family. That’s why a junior athlete was able to be honest with her coach when she felt like a change in approach was necessary.
And that’s why the coach — who has been on football and baseball staffs under successful coaches like Ron Nelson, Woodrow Lowe, Jamey DuBose and Scot Hemmings — was humble enough to listen.
“I don’t think you ever get anywhere if you can’t communicate,” he said. “Coaching under guys like that — I could be the best coach in America, but if they don’t understand where I’m coming from, then we’re not going to be very good.”
Instead, an understanding was reached, and the Lady Red Devils have a chance at a state championship for the first time in three years.
Central has a large senior class, an ace pitcher in Allie Kelley, a sound defense and a better-than-average batting order, one through eight. It’s a recipe for success, one that Kelley began to realize during the offseason.
But it was the understanding that the success had to be earned, she said, that took the team to the next level.
“The way I see it, all the hard work’s been done,” she said. “Now we just have to go out there and play. Coach Bell has always told us that if we want it, we can do it. It’s not going to be handed to us.”
She, as the ace pitcher, will undoubtedly play a large role in the team’s success. But it’s the defense behind her, she said, that allows her to stay loose in the circle, pitch to contact and trust that her defense will make the plays.
And if it does, the team could be playing deep into the tournament. Kelley noted that her team was just four wins away and that just knowing it had a chance was a boost. Fellow senior Ashton Wicker referred to the family atmosphere again to describe how the team will approach the tournament.
“It’s sad,” she said, eyes already misty at the beginning of the team’s final practice. “This has been my family for six years. Just saying goodbye after these two days — it’s unreal. That’s how we wall see it. Every game is an opportunity to extend the season.”
It could go at least two more days.
The first round game will be played at 12:30 p.m. ET on Wednesday at Lagoon Park.