Editor’s Note: This is part of a series highlighting the accomplishments of every area team’s senior class as their senior seasons were cut short due to the coronavirus pandemic. It will culminate in Tallapoosa Publishers Inc.’s Virtual Senior Night. For more information on that, visit www.tallasseetribune.com.
It is pretty clear Elmore County’s softball program has the potential for plenty of success in its future. The Panthers’ roster was loaded with young talent and they were already competing at the top of Class 4A.
The three players in the Class of 2020 did not the chance to finish out the season but their coaching staff and teammates are making sure they know any future success could not have been accomplished without them.
“We think the future is bright going forward but make no mistake, the foundation has been laid by this group of seniors,” ECHS coach Terry Nicholas said. “The success we have is going to be because of these seniors.”
Nicholas took to Facebook to post that same message to the team’s seniors April 24, which would’ve been Senior Night.
The three seniors, Ella Watts, Akerria Harden and Gracie Clements, got a taste of success as they helped the Panthers achieve the Class 4A No. 1 ranking in the Alabama Sports Writers Association poll for the first time in program history. Nicholas said that may make things more difficult because the team did not get a chance to put that ranking on the line in the postseason but he hopes that gives the seniors something to hold on to from their final season.
“There’s a bitter pill to swallow with the way things have happened but going forward, I think that taste will subside,” Nicholas said. “They will be able to cherish it and be proud of being there for what we accomplished in the first half of the season.”
Nicholas, a first-year coach, credited the seniors for helping the team through the transition when former coach Kim Moncrief stepped down last May. The Panthers saw a whole new coaching staff and several new players but the seniors made sure everyone felt welcome.
“The success we had on the field was a big product of the way we were doing things in practice but the other side of that story was the transition was so smooth,” Nicholas said. “Change can be uncomfortable and we had about as much change as you can have in one year. Those seniors were the bridge between the old and the new.”
Harden spent five years with the Panthers and became a jack of all trades during her career. She played all over the field and she became sure-handed whether it was from right field or at third base.
“She has been asked to wear a lot of different hats really out of necessity,” Nicholas said. “Whatever was asked of her, she stepped up and did a tremendous job. When you have a player that can do that, it makes my job easier. It’s a huge asset for a player to have.”
Watts was with the varsity squad since seventh grade and saw plenty of transitions with new players throughout the years so it was never a doubt she would be a leader this season. She finished her high school career with 107 hits and 85 runs scored after being a staple at the top of the lineup over her final four seasons.
“A big part that was her work ethic and her coachability,” Nicholas said. “She has really been in the lineup since her seventh and eighth grade year but that didn’t show in her work ethic. She didn’t act like there was any entitlement to a starting spot or complacency. That is probably the greatest contributing factor to her success.”
Watts excelled off the field as well and she was named as one of the school’s four nominees for the Joe Sewell Award along with Clements.
Clements did not see a lot of playing time but she spent four years as a reserve catcher, getting innings when the starters needed a rest. She seemed set to get her chance as a senior but a new transfer stepped into the starting role. Still, Clements never complained and Nicholas said there was never a doubt how much she meant to the team.
“As much as a hard worker as the other two were, she’s the hardest worker we had,” Nicholas said. “She was as selfless a player as I have ever seen in a lot of years being on the ball field. She did everything with a smile, a great attitude and as a leader.”