In order to get an accurate read of where you currently are in life, sometimes it’s necessary to reflect on where you’ve been. And if that’s the case, then I will feel more than a little nostalgic as I approach this particular week as the sports reporter for the Laurinburg Exchange.
The Eastern North Carolina Babe Ruth state softball tournament opening ceremony kicks off at the Optimist ballpark Tuesday evening at 6:30 p.m. And when it does, it will be the first time ever that Laurinburg has hosted a state championship tournament of this magnitude in any youth sport. The tournament will feature 35 of the top 8, 10, 12, 14 and 16U softball teams from the east coast, including Laurinburg’s very own Optimist Club 8U, 10U and 12U All-Stars. Tournament play is slated to begin at 9:00 a.m. each morning, and will conclude on Sunday July 16th when champions of each age bracket are decided.
For the remainder of the work week, you will find me there, paying equal attention to the games played on the field and the stories that bubble beneath the hundreds of balls and strikes recorded. And indeed, I will be bouncing around like a pinball after a liter of Diet Mountain Dew to provide the best coverage I possibly can.
In many ways, little league baseball and softball schedules are comparable to a July 4th fireworks display. When the weather reaches the hottest point of the year, the various leagues all crown their respective champions in a furious month-long frenzy before a grand finale ends the festivities with a glorious bang. All things considered, this week’s softball tournament is that grand finale, before the Scotland County residents begin looking towards the start of the school year and the avalanche of fall sports that are right around the corner.
It’s a time period equal parts exciting and intense for Yours Truly, as I scramble to single-handily give equal coverage to the local youth who put their all into the baseball diamond. But as I look to the week ahead, I can’t help but reminisce about a similar week I experienced nearly two years ago to the day where my writing ability, confidence and mettle were tested to the absolute breaking point. It was a week that I wouldn’t trade for the world.
The summer of 2010 saw this young, semi-proven freelance reporter feeling the dog days of summer bearing down on both my professional career and bank account. Work was hard to come by, as were the opportunities to make a name for myself while the various newspapers in my hometown struggled to operate on a limited budget. I was desperate, and just about to consider a career change when a former editor and mentor of mine gave my cell phone a ring.
I was tasked with covering the National Softball Association (NSA) Fast-Pitch World Series, a tournament that involved more than 150 teams from around the Eastern Seaboard. Five days, 10 stories. And believing that I knew what I was getting myself into, I eagerly snatched up the assignment, unaware of the chaos which would follow. I had a park official offering to feed me story ideas and an editor with years of experience guiding me the whole way. How hard could it be?
On the eve of the tournament’s first day, I received news that my editor would be out of action the entire week due to unforeseen circumstances. And when I arrived to the park the next day, the best story idea that the park official could come up with was that a popular water fountain was broken. I said “thank you” to the official and promptly deleted his number from my phone.
With barely 25 stories under my belt since my freelance career started three short months ago, I was completely, totally on my own. Expectations were a mile high. But after my initial panic attack, I developed a game plan and made a promise to myself that I would deliver on all fronts no matter what it took. And onward I pressed from there.
Once that first day was in the record books, I was a machine. Adorned in my NSA staff hat that made me look like a tournament employee (which I milked the entire week), I conversed with coaches, players and sweat-caked onlookers in the stands to find stories. And by the time the week was over, My email was stuffed with messages forwarded by my editors from parents thanking me for the job that I did.
I collapsed from exhaustion after the tournament left town, and did my best Rip Van Winkle impression for days afterward. But when I awoke, I awoke to scores of story opportunities from editors who guaranteed me that I would never go without work again.
I learned a valuable lesson from that experience. No matter how daunting something appears initially, you can conquer it with careful planning and a cool head. It was a lesson that I have applied to everything I’ve done ever since both professionally and personally, and without that experience I’m not sure where I’d be in my life. I would certainly not be here in Scotland County.
With that said, it’s hard not to feel like my life has come full-circle as I prepare to greet the hundreds of players, coaches and sweat-caked onlookers who will travel to Laurinburg this week. Because just like that first softball tournament that I covered two years ago, I feel blessed to be put in this position, to have the chance to capture all of the drama, emotion and excitement that will occur in the days to come. And I promise the regular readers of the sports page that there won’t be a single story about a broken water fountain in the paper this week.
It’s time to play ball.