Faith Wheat’s deep brown eyes welled up with bittersweet pride watching her team perform from the red-roofed dugout at Lagoon Park.
She sat straight up that evening in Montgomery, but mostly because she had too, sidelined for the second half of the season with a broken back.
Wheat’s starting center field position for Edgewood softball had been yanked from her by injury in her freshman season. Now she could only watch and cheer as the Wildcats won a state championship, thanks in large part to the player who took her place, Emma Brown.
Three years later, the now-senior’s eyes again began to water and a soft crack appeared in her confident voice as she recalled the scenario.
“During the season, there were moments when I’d go home and I was like, ‘I don’t want to do anything. I don’t want to go to these practices. It’s hard to watch them be good,” Wheat said. “When we finally got to state, I was like, ‘This isn’t about me. God wants Emma Brown in center field.’ She was the one who hit the winning run in. If I wouldn’t have been hurt, she wouldn’t have been up to bat.”
Wheat took any leftover frustrations she held from her time stuck on the bench and used them to fuel her journey to the top of Edgewood’s softball program, evolving into a potent offensive and defensive weapon and one of the team’s most essential guides by her final season.
“She’s a tremendous leader,” Edgewood coach Kim Brown said. “Most seasoned outfielder that we have. Plays her role really well with that, as far as leadership, carrying the outfield, helping the younger girls out there a lot.”
Wheat’s career with the Wildcats began in sixth grade.
From that age through middle school she served primarily as a baserunner until she grabbed a starting spot in center field as she entered high school.
Brown, who’s coached Wheat off and on since she started playing travel ball at age 7, saw potential early on.
“I had her younger, and saw her speed and quickness as a plus,” Brown said. “So we moved her to the left side and thought, ‘Let’s try her as a slapper and see how that goes.’ And she took that on really well.”
While running through first base in a game in Pensacola, Florida, her freshman year, Wheat felt something in her back tighten up.
She said at first she believed it was a pulled muscle, and played through it for a few weeks. But it kept getting worse.
After multiple doctor’s visits and one to a chiropractor, a trip to UAB Hospital at the University of Alabama, Birmingham, revealed the extent of Wheat’s injury. Several bones were broken in her back. She’d have to spend the next five months in a brace.
“They had no idea how I was still walking around,” Wheat said.
Wheat waited anxiously to get back on the field.
Her grandfather, Gary Barnes, has attended the vast majority of Wheat’s softball games throughout her time playing. He said it was one of the toughest experiences he’s seen her go through, stating it “pretty much killed her.”
Barnes added she was “all-out” with her training regimen for the next season once she was ready to go.
“She was always practicing and getting in the backyard, that type of thing,” Barnes said. “Playing, throwing balls, practicing hitting.”
At first Wheat wasn’t sure if she wanted to come back, but after a few travel ball coaches spoke with her about the potential she had, she committed to her return.
Brown said Wheat’s work recovering from her injury served as the most important moment in the softball player’s development.
“I worked out all the time,” Wheat said. “I ran all the time. And I worked harder than I’ve ever worked, because I knew that I’d have to work twice as hard to even get back to where I’d started.”
Wheat’s next season of travel ball was one of her best ever, she said, and she started garnering attention from college programs.
Edgewood repeated as state champions in Wheat’s sophomore year, this time with her in the lineup.
She’s producing her best numbers in her senior season. Wheat’s stolen 30 bases this year, accounting for 42 percent of Edgewood’s season total. She hasn’t been caught stealing a single time.
“She can move like nobody’s business,” Brown said. “That’s her positive, is her running.”
In the batter’s box Wheat’s a slapper, a left-handed hitter who takes a running swing to cut down on her time to reach first base.
Wheat’s batting average is at .533 on the season, one of just two players in the Elmore County area above .500. But it’s the presence of a refined power slap with her bunting and soft-slapping abilities that make her so lethal, Brown said. Wheat’s second on the team with 13 extra-base hits, including two home runs.
The key is reading how the opposing team is playing her, Wheat said. Brown normally calls numbered plays off a card for her hitters, but when Wheat is up, the coach trusts her to make her own decisions.
“When I get up to bat, it kind of makes me feel good about myself because the defense is like, ‘What is she gonna do,” Wheat said. “If they move up and get in my face, then obviously I want to hit it hard. If they stay back because they think I’m gonna hit it hard, then I’ll bunt.”
Wheat’s been an instrumental resource for fellow slappers on the team, particularly junior outfielder Molly Snow.
“One thing I’ve been struggling with is that, when I slap, I go toward first base,” Snow said. “She’s helped me to remember to stay toward the pitcher. I’d been struggling this season because I go toward first base when I slap, and since she’s helped me stay toward the pitcher, I’ve been hitting the ball way better.”
The Wildcats lost several key players from the COVID-shortened 2020 season and entered 2021 with a new head coach as Brown took over for former coach Darryl Free after three years as an assistant.
Wheat’s been one of three seniors pushing the team to be competitive, and their record is currently 13-13.
“After we had that big group leave, I’m glad that the people that decided to stay stayed,” Wheat said. “Because we’ve kind of held everything together. We’ve been the glue to show that Edgewood still means something, and it’ll always mean something.”
After her time with Edgewood concludes this season, Wheat will continue playing softball at Auburn University at Montgomery. Brown’s daughter and Wheat’s long-time teammate and fellow senior Haylee Brown will join her.