LAMP overcomes first-day jitters to advance in 4A softball tourney
By Tim Gayle
The first day of the 2015 state softball tournament was an eye-opening experience for LAMP’s softball players, one they had not quite prepared for.
“We kind of got here and were awestruck, expecting to get beat,” ace pitcher Reagan Watkins said. “We’re here, that’s all we wanted, let’s go and play. I think this year we’ve all seen we really have a chance to make something happen.”
The Golden Tigers made history on Wednesday with an 8-2 win over Carbon Hill in the first round of the 2016 state tournament, setting a school record for wins with 40.
But the Tigers were unable to ride that momentum in the second round, losing 3-2 to Central Florence to fall into the loser’s bracket of the Class 4A tournament. They would stay alive with a 1-0 nine-inning win over city rival Montgomery Catholic late Wednesday.
After losing five talented seniors from last year’s squad, head coach Anthony Norris admits he couldn’t have predicted his squad would make back-to-back trips to Lagoon Park Softball Complex.
In fact, he told pitching coach Jamie Watkins – Reagan’s father – to expect some ups and downs this season.
“I had to sit him down and talk to him and tell him that Reagan is a great pitcher, but I’m replacing five seniors with two eighth graders and two ninth graders behind her,” Norris said. “We’re going to make mistakes behind her and she’s probably going to lose games she isn’t supposed to.
“To be honest with you, her pitching surpassed what I thought her ability would be and those (younger) girls came up with big plays when we needed them. They don’t always make a good defensive play but it seems like they make them when you’ve got to have them.”
Norris wasn’t sure what to expect when the season started, but he found out in a hurry as the Golden Tigers scored three shutouts on the first day (Holtville, Alabama Christian and Tallassee), then added three more wins on the second day against Dadeville, Thompson and Marbury. Suddenly, LAMP was 6-0 with four shutouts.
“We won that thing, beat ACA for the championship,” Norris said. “We beat some good quality teams in that tournament and they (LAMP players) just kept surprising me.”
At the top of that list is Reagan Watkins, the first-ever LAMP athlete selected for Alabama All-Stars Sports Week who sports seven different pitches in her repertoire.
“First and foremost is her work ethic,” Norris said. “We work our pitching staff. We know that’s our strong suit. We work those girls hard at practice. She has always worked hard but as far as her skill level, she has really learned to segregate spin. She knows how to separate a screwball – stay on top of it to make it break outside – versus a riseball to spin it under and make it break up.
“She knows what to do with her hand to really get a tight bite on the ball.”
Watkins credits her father for her development.
“I mainly stick to three or four (pitches) – changeup, riseball, screwball,” she said. “My dad’s my pitching coach and he tends to push me harder than I think any other coach would because he expects a lot out of me. Over the summer, he doesn’t let me pitch inside. He makes me pitch outside to get used to the heat. I play a lot of ball over the summer.”
And last year’s travels taught her some valuable lessons.
“I think one thing I would struggle with a lot in high school, especially last season, is I want to strike everybody out,” Watkins said. “Travel ball taught me I have a defense behind me and they are there for a reason. It’s not just you. It’s a team sport.”
Being a talented athlete at a school known nationally for its academics has its perks as Watkins discovered last August with an offer from Southern Mississippi.
“I’m so excited,” she said. “I walked onto their campus and fell in love with it. They have great godly coaches who stand for what’s right and I hope to create a bigger and better program with them.”
Norris has discovered over the years that maintaining a championship-caliber program at LAMP is difficult because of its academic standards, but the biggest blow this summer will come from players moving. In addition to losing senior Courtney Ray, the Golden Tigers’ catcher, Watkins is moving to Daphne and fellow junior Frannie Crane is moving to Mississippi.
“My dad’s job got relocated to Daphne so we’re moving there this summer,” Watkins said. “I’m really excited to be able to play for their program and hopefully be an asset for them. It’s bittersweet. My last day at LAMP was Monday. Only a few tears were shed. But when this is over, there might be more than just a few.”
For Norris, he hopes the rest of his team returns intact, which is always a challenge at LAMP.
“It is such a struggle within the school system,” he said, referring to third baseman Hope Johnson, an eighth grader at Baldwin Middle School. “She received a letter saying she didn’t get into LAMP because we’re saying we’re full. It’s a shame our system doesn’t consider this has been an athlete for this high school.”
All of the obstacles just lend a little more urgency to this year’s state tournament for the Golden Tigers.
LAMP must battle through the loser’s bracket for a chance to win a state title. The Tigers open Thursday with a game against Handley.