Another season, another trip to the final four.
On May 16-17, the Hickory Grove Christian School girls’ softball team played in the N.C. Independent Schools Athletic Association state tournament semifinals for the 11th time in the program’s 12 years of play.
The Lions placed third in the double-elimination tournament.
Since the program played its first varsity season in 2003, Hickory Grove has reached the state tournament every year. The only season the Lions failed to reach the final four was in 2012, when it lost a first-round state playoff game to Providence Day.
“For some reason, we have terrific talent at our school for softball,” said Roger Woodell, the only coach the program has ever had. “I don’t know why or how. We only have 1,000-1,100 students, K-12. We have less than 400 in high school. For some reason, there have been girls that have been very skilled and talented.
“Most of our girls play tournament ball. Because of the success of the (Hickory Grove) program, we have kids who have a leaning towards softball (and) who want a Christian education … come to our school. The success (of the softball program) helps.”
Woodell also coordinates adult and youth recreation programs for Hickory Grove Baptist Church, the school’s parent organization. Woodell was HGCS’s baseball coach before switching to softball so that he could spend more time with his daughter Krista, then a member of the team.
After one year of middle school play in 2002, Hickory Grove’s success as a varsity program soon followed.
The school was classified as 2A through 2005. Starting with the 2006 season, the Lions won five straight 3A state titles. Hickory Grove’s streak ended in 2011 when it reached the state semifinals but lost the next two games.
After a one-year absence from the final four, Hickory Grove returned last year and reached the championship round. On the tournament’s final day, the Lions lost twice to High Point Christian Academy and finished as the state runner-up.
Hickory Grove placed four players on the all-state team that season: Hunter Hoskins, Regan Huneycutt, Amanda Dobner and Emily Ward.
Woodell felt this year’s team was capable of winning the state championship, but he challenged them to achieve a smaller staircase of goals first: Win the Metrolina Athletic 3A regular season, win the conference tournament, reach the state playoffs and make it to the final four.
In addition to playing for a title and the Hickory Grove tradition, players had other motivators. After an April loss to archrival Metrolina Christian Academy, they adopted a slogan of “next play,” inspired by basketball-standout-turned-softball player Jayla Joyner’s challenge to teammates to look forward.
“We wrote (‘next play’) on our wrists from that game on,” said Hoskins, a pitcher who has signed with Southern Wesleyan University in South Carolina. “What’s done is done. You can’t change it. After that, we strived in practice and in games to move on to the next play.”
Another motivator was the Hickory Grove fish.
Every year since the first state tournament appearance, Hickory Ridge captains are caretakers of a lifelike rubber bass that goes on the chain-link fence of the Lions’ dugout before playoff games. For good luck, each player kisses the fish during pregame introductions.
“I enjoy being able to explain it to new players,” said Huneycutt, a center fielder who has verbally committed to Wingate. “It’s always fun to bring it back out. It’s the time of year everyone looks forward to, and it shows how far we’ve made it in the season.”
At this year’s tournament, Hickory Grove won an opening round versus host Cary Academy. But consecutive losses to High Point Christian and eventual state champ Wesleyan Christian Academy eliminated the Lions.
Hoskins, Huneycutt, Dobner and Ward were named all-state again. Hoskins and Joyner are the team’s only graduating seniors.
So the 2015 Lions will look to continue the Hickory Grove tradition.