RINGGOLD — Dan River softball will feature a new look next season following the exit of the Wildcats’ six senior leaders.
A year removed from winning the Dogwood District, the Wildcats took their success even further this season as they took home the Region B Division 2 championship and hosted a Group A Division 2 quarterfinal game on Tuesday.
For a team with a new head coach and four freshmen and two sophomores consistently in the starting lineup, it was quite a feat. But the key to Dan River’s success was the senior class.
Camie Barrett, Jessica Dalton, Holly Eckard, Kelsey and Kimmie Meadows and Courtney Smithers don’t just know each other; they are some of each other’s best friends. Everyone in the group except Barrett played for Eddy Whitley Horseshoeing’s Dan River District 10-and-under softball team, which won a season championship with them on the squad. The group won four straight regular-season championships and a tournament championship in 2008 playing for the Eddy Whitley team and also played together for Diamond Fever.
That familiarity with one another helped them take the Dan River program to an 18-8 finish this year, including the regional title, which the Wildcats won last Friday night with a 9-3 road win over top-seed Goochland.
Although their time playing together ended with Tuesday’s 4-1 loss to Northumberland, the six have memories to last them a lifetime.
“ Even though we didn't go to the championship, not many people can say they have participated in a state tournament, and the regional championship trophy we earned is always going to be in the trophy case at the school,” Dalton, who will study education at Radford University and is undecided about trying to walk on with the NCAA Division I Highlander softball squad next year, said. “People will remember us. It doesn’t happen that often.”
Kimmie Meadows cherishes having the entire group together through the four years of high school, and most of the six together throughout their entire softball careers.
“ We’ve all grown up together, and then to finally get here, to this point, together is something I love,” Kimmie Meadows, who will study to be a nurse and play NJCAA Division II, Region X softball at Patrick Henry Community College in Martinsville next year, said following Tuesday’s loss.
This year’s Dan River squad, with its blend of upperclassmen and underclassmen on the field together —which coach Adam Moore emphasized the team’s experience and energy going into the state tournament —powered its way past a district tournament runner-up finish to win the region championship.
“ We’ve become so close, and reaching the state quarterfinals, that’s a long way,” Dalton said following the Northumberland game. “It means a lot to see how much your hard work has paid off. I feel like every single practice, every single game has led us to this point.”
The group cites its familiarity with each other as a bonding element that helped them stay together through thick and thin.
“ Not many girls stay together from 10-and-under,” Kimmie Meadows said. “To stay together like this has been awesome.”
Kelsey Meadows feels that the bonds the group forged helped it and the team through the rough times.
“ We’ve always been really close, and I’m going to miss everybody,” Kelsey Meadows, who will attend classes and play NJCAA Division II, Region X softball at Patrick Henry Community College in Martinsville next year, said after Tuesday’s game. “We know how to pick each other up.”
Dan River fell to William Campbell 10-5 in the district title contest before outscoring opponents 21-6 to win the Region B Division 2 title as a No. 3 seed. Dan River broke open a 4-3 contest with five runs in the seventh in a 9-3 title win.
“ We probably really picked up our game in regionals,” Smithers said.
Moore saw the six seniors as a staple of consistency and an open bunch to the underclassmen.
“ I think experience is one of the biggest contributions they’ve had,” Moore said. “They’ve had a little regional experience, some postseason experience, they’ve played in a lot of tough ball games. From year to year, I think that they have improved as a group, and I think they’re receptive to some of these young freshmen coming in and sophomores, to help contribute along the way to come up with a region championship team.”
The group played the majority of its high school career under former Dan River coach Melanie Gilbert. Gilbert guided the Wildcats to the first round of the Region B Division 2 Tournament last season. Dalton recalled a time in middle school when Gilbert told her what she and her father thought about the future of Dan River softball.
“ I remember having Melanie Gilbert as a gym teacher back in middle school,” Dalton said. “She would tell me about how she and Jim were excited to coach us girls in the upcoming years and that they thought we would do great things for the program.”
When Jim, who battled cholangiocarcinoma, a rare form of cancer, for eight months before he died on May 21, had his condition worsen not long before the Dogwood District Tournament, the girls put added significance on their season, dedicating it to him. The team got blue wristbands with “JG” on them that they would wear through the end of the season, on a suggestion by Dalton.
The group counts playing for Jim Gilbert as its favorite Dan River memory, and when he died last month, the girls felt extra motivation to do well in the postseason, knowing that he would be looking down on them smiling.
“ It gave us that spark,” Eckard, who is going to attend classes and play NCAA Division III softball in the Old Dominion Athletic Conference at Emory and Henry College next year, said.
The group, with tears in their eyes, believed the team lived out Jim Gilbert’s dream for him in winning the regional title.
Dan River is left with solid ground to build on and most of its starting lineup back in 2014. Six members of the Wildcats’ main starting lineup were either freshmen or sophomores.
“ I think it will help them a lot in further years, even though we won’t be here,” Smithers said. “I think them, so young, having that experience; it will help them a lot.”
Nick Gueguen is a sports reporter for the Register & Bee. Follow Nick on Twitter: @NGueguenGDR