Optimist 8U All-Stars softball coach Jesse Burroughs did his best to deliver a post-game speech Friday night to his squad without tearing up, but it proved impossible.
It wasn’t the way his team ended their season with an 8-5 loss to eventual ENC tournament third place winner Camden, though it certainly played a role in his outpouring of emotion. In that game, Camden carried a five run lead into the sixth and deciding inning before the 8U All-Stars nearly mounted the improbable comeback. After chipping the Camden lead to three runs, the 8U All-Stars managed to load the bases with two outs before the outstretched glove of Camden shortstop Kamryn Nash caught a pop fly to end the Optimist rally. After the game, Morgan Singletary was awarded ‘team MVP’ honors.
While the loss was certainly disappointing, it wasn’t quite the reason why Burroughs found himself nearly unable to speak after his team shook hands with the victor and left the field.
It was because, in just one week as participants in the Eastern North Carolina state softball tournament, the Optimist 8U All-Stars showed enough grit and toughness to provide Burroughs with a lifetime of treasured memories.
“If you’re gonna go out, you always want to go out with a fight, and to see these girls battle until the very final out just overwhelmed me,” Burroughs said. “The honor I felt being the coach of this team and my daughter (Kynleigh) means everything to me. Trophies and medals pale in comparison to seeing your daughter make a big hit or play in the field, and that’s something I feel all parents can relate to.”
The members of the 8U, 10U and 12U Optimist All-Stars all had their share of heartache last week if the tournament was measured strictly by wins and losses. Perhaps none more so than the 10U All-Star squad, who lost two of their three opening bracket games by one run and saw a 5-0 lead vanish against Henderson/Vance in the first round of Friday’s double-elimination games.
On the mound against Henderson/Vance was 10U All-Stars starting pitcher Morgan Hatchell, who helped her team build a five-run cushion by recording three straight hit-less innings to start the game. But after she was pulled to conserve her arm for a future start, Henderson/Vance let loose an offensive flurry to tie the game at 5-5 in the fifth inning. Hatchell would be re-inserted back into the game and continued her no-hitter until she reached her inning limit after the sixth. Henderson/Vance would tack on one more run in the seventh inning to stun the 10U All-Stars, who would lose their second and final game Saturday morning against Wilson Xtreme by a score of 13-3 in four innings.
But 10U All-Stars coach Boyd McLaurin isn’t measuring his team by the win/loss column. Rather, he points to the fact the 10U All-Stars had faced solely machine pitching until just two short weeks ago when his squad won the District 3 tournament championship.
And for McLaurin, a team inexperienced with fast pitch softball remaining competitive all week is cause enough to rejoice.
“This team had the least amount of expectations on it due to our lack of practice with fast pitch softball,” McLaurin said. “They competed against competition that they’ve never seen on a local level before, and for them to do what they did shows me how much they matured over such a small window of time. They now know they can hang with anybody they play in the future.”
The 12U All-Stars finished fourth overall in the ENC tournament, the highest placing of any of the Optimist teams, but had to endure a grueling three game stretch that spanned from Friday afternoon until Saturday morning. After a tough 7-5 loss to Kinston that went into extra innings, the 12U All-Stars had to regroup and face the Down East All-Stars in a 7:00 p.m. game that same day. A stellar pitching performance from Kaylee McMillian anchored a 4-2 win for the All-Stars: But rather than head home for the night, the girls traveled over to the 8U squad’s 9:00 p.m. game to cheer their fellow All-Stars on well into the night.
The 12U girls would go on to suffer their final loss of the tournament the next morning. A 8-1 defeat to Washington saw the Optimist club notch just a few hits, including a Lindsay Hunter RBI single which drove in Mackenzie Powell, their only run in the contest.
Each early exit for the 8U, 10U and 12U teams may linger in the short term, but for Burroughs it’s about cherishing each moment as it comes. Daughter Kynleigh was born on March 13th 2003, a month after Burroughs deployed for Iraq at the onset of the war. As a member of the first brigade to serve a year-long tour of duty in Iraq, Burroughs was awarded the ARCOM medal with a “V” for valor, an honor bestowed for an act of bravery in the line of fire.
“That experience taught me to hold every moment I have with my daughter near and dear to my heart,” said Burroughs, who was an E-6 in the second brigade of the Army 82nd Airborne. “It’s why getting to coach her softball games was such a special thing to me, because sometimes as parents we take our time with our kids for granted. But having bullets fly by you on the battlefield and knowing you have a little girl to go back home to will do a lot to change that.”