The softball team, 41-7 and ranked No. 2 in Class 3A headed into this weekend’s state tournament, wants badly to bring home that first state-title trophy for the only public school in Calhoun County still lacking one.
“I can’t wait to win state and prove everybody wrong,” said Joy Cain, the team’s lone senior, “and just be able to show off our ring and be excited about what we’ve done and how much we’ve accomplished.”
The Wildcats begin state-tourney play against Leeds today at 10:30 a.m. at Montgomery’s Lagoon Park. The rest of 3A’s elite eight field includes top-ranked Pisgah and No. 7 Saks, which White Plains beat to win the Area 9 and North Central Regional titles.
Five teams that survived to Montgomery were not ranked in the last AHSAA poll, so White Plains’ chances to bring home that elusive blue trophy look better than ever.
Other White Plains teams have come close. The boys’ basketball team was runner-up in 1979 and has made the state semifinals five times, most recently in 2008.
The girls’ track team brought home the red runners-up trophy in 1983.
The baseball team reached the semifinals in 2001 and just completed its second consecutive run to third round.
Others haven’t come so close. The football team, which plays in the most numbers-driven sport, last made the playoffs in 1994 and has never won a playoff game.
When White Plains teams have gone deep into the postseason, the Wildcats from rural eastern Calhoun County faced powers from other parts of the state. The boys’ basketball team lost 71-52 to Frankie Sullivan-led R.C. Hatch in the 2008 semifinals, and the baseball team suffered sweeps against powerful Madison Academy the past two years.
This time feels differently. White Plains’ softball team will make its first-ever state tourney appearance as one of this season’s powers, holding 3A’s No. 1 ranking in every poll but the last, which came out April 21.
What’s more, the Wildcats have hit a power surge in postseason. They went on a home-run binge in the regional, beating Saks 7-1 and 13-0 in their final two regional games.
Their schoolmates have caught on.
“There wasn’t much (fan following) when we went to regionals, because we went last year, and nobody really thought anything of it,” said Jordan Coleman, who leads the team with 20 home runs. “But once we started winning and they heard about us killing the ball and hitting home runs every other at bat, then people really started showing up for our games.”
If you build it, they will come, and White Plains has built toward this.
The school’s academic reputation won the area a population surge in recent years. The high school had 352 students in grades 9-12 this school year and is set to welcome a freshman class of 131 — nearly double the size of this year‘s graduating class.
This surge has been felt in sports. White Plains was reclassified from 2A to 3A starting in the 2008-09 school year.
“We’re becoming one of the bigger 3As now,” Principal Todd Chandler said.
With more students come more athletes, and sixth-year White Plains softball coach Rachel Ford has had more from which to choose. Much of her varsity team has been with her since seventh grade, but she has had about 50 players try out annually in recent years.
Ford is also part of a series of strong coaching hires in recent years. The list includes proven winners like Heath Harmon (football), Chris Randall (basketball) and Chad Hudson (baseball).
Ford coaches girls’ basketball, as well, but softball is her first sport. The former Rachel Countryman finished her college career second among Jacksonville State‘s all-time home run leaders and came to White Plains with designs on building a championship program.
She put emphasis on offseason work, most especially strength and agility work that she felt benefited her in college.
“Once I got here, there were some rough spots,“ Ford said. “The girls had never worked as hard as I wanted them to work, and we went through some tough times with a lot of people quitting.
“… The girls that are here right now, the ones that have been here a long time, they bought into it as soon as I showed up.”
Results started showing on the field a year ago, when White Plains hosted the area tournament and made the regional for the first time. A year later, the Wildcats will play in their first state tournament, and they’ll go to Montgomery as a favorite.
“This has been our goal all year,” Ford said. “That’s what we’ve talked about with the girls, that it’s not good enough just to get there. We’ve got to make the most of it while we’re there.”
If they win, then the school whose colors are blue and white will finally have one of those AHSAA blue trophies in the case.
“That just motivates everybody,” Chandler said. “That shows what’s possible.”
Joe Medley is The Star’s sports columnist. He can be reached at 256-235-3576 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow on Twitter @Jomedstar.