Thursday, 25 June 2020 11:19

Sense of 'family' helps local travel team ease back into summer schedule

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LAUREL HILL – “Play ball!” – two words that players, coaches and fans of baseball and softball have been anxiously waiting to hear for months. 

COVID-19 shut down the scholastic spring sports season, but as gathering restrictions are slowly becoming more relaxed, the sounds of dugout banter, metal bats clanging and PA announcers are once again being heard from area baseball and softball diamonds.

When Phase 2 of North Carolina’s re-opening plan went into effect at the end of May, it opened the door for non-contact sports to return to action.  For the Scotland Bombers 14u softball team and many other travel ball programs across the state, that announcement was all they needed to hear. 

In the month since Phase 2 began, the Bombers have already put in three weeks of practice and competed in a USSSA tournament.  Now that the game that they love has been returned to them, they plan to get as much playing time and skill development out of their summer as possible.

“We will be back on the field (competing) this weekend and playing in the summer nationals on July 3,” said Bombers head coach Charles Smith.  “Our goals are for the girls to play to the best of their ability, to always give 100 percent, to cut down on the errors – and the wins will come.”

The Bombers participated in their first event since February when they traveled to Gastonia on June 13 for the “Swing For The Rings” tournament.  At the plate, you would never know that they had been denied the opportunity to compete for nearly four months. 

The Bombers tallied 31 runs in four games and fell just short in the championship game of the silver bracket.  Smith cites fatigue and struggles in the circle as the reasons for falling in the finale.

“The championship game didn’t finish until 11:30 pm,” Smith explained.  “We ran out of gas and lost in the last inning 12-11.  We struggled a little at pitching, but it is coming back nicely.  We earned runner-up rings, but they are still champions in our book.”

Led by Smith and assistant coaches Robert Sampson, Casey Bormet and Mitch Cribb, the Bombers are comprised of players from Scotland, Richmond and Marlboro counties.  One area Bomber that is thrilled about her return to the diamond is Smith’s daughter Marissa.

Marissa Smith serves as one of the team’s captains and is a rising eighth-grader at Carver Middle School in Laurel Hill. 

“I have missed being on the field with my sisters,” she shared.  “I have felt like a lock without a key. It felt really good to come back and be able to win some nice jewelry. I can’t wait to get back on the field.”

Sharing that sentiment is rising Richmond County freshman Kady Harris.  “I’m so thankful that we are able to get back out there and show what we have worked long and hard for,” added Harris.  “I know that I can speak for my team when I say that we have missed it and we are so excited to start the season back up.”

Harris (Hamlet Middle), Laela Oxendine (Scotland High), and Emily Sampson (Spring Hill Middle) join Marissa Smith as team captains. 

Also on the Bombers’ roster are Madison Willoughby (Carver Middle), Riley Phillips (Carver Middle), Madison Dixon (Marlboro Academy), Mackenzi Rivers (Marlboro High), Allie Hunt (McColl Middle), Alexa Evans (McColl Middle), Jakayla Steele (Hamlet Middle) and Emily Hatcher (Rockingham Middle).

The importance of player safety to coaches pre-exists COVID-19.  The Bombers being back in action does not mean that COVID-19 is being ignored.  While the game itself will keep players separated for most of the playing time, Smith says that the coaching staff is still encouraging social distancing and the use of “a lot of hand sanitizer.”

Dugout use is also not allowed in competition.  This has impacted the overall player experience.

“It feels good to be back playing on the field, but it doesn’t feel the same to me,” shared Phillips.  “Having to stand outside of the dugout on the other side of the fence is a little difficult and very different.  It hurts not giving our teammates hugs when they hit a homer or a good hit in general.  Other than that, I’m happy to be back.”

Like many sports programs, the Bombers use a family approach to develop team camaraderie.  Some of the players and coaches are family in the more traditional sense while others have developed that relationship from years of playing the game.

"I've been with Coach Charlie (Smith) since I was 10 years old,” said Steele.  “I have grown to love all of the coaches and my teammates. The Bombers are my second family and I'm thankful to be a part of the team.”

“We are not just a team we are family,” echoed Smith.  “That goes for players, coaches and parents.  Without a great support system, we could not be successful on or off the field.”

The Bombers will return to action Saturday at Tryon Park in Bessemer City with the first game currently slated for 10:30 a.m.