At the beginning of the season, Jones County’s players may have been thinking about next year.
Next year would be the year. The Jones County softball team could use this season as experience for its younger players.
And early, the signs may have pointed that way: The Greyhounds (28-8) started 2-3 in GHSA Region 4-5A play. But for the remainder of the regular season, Jones County owned its region opponents, going 10-1.
“We’re young, so we started out struggling a little bit just to find our identity,” Jones County head coach Blake Lyons said. “We started moving some people around. We found where people played best and were most comfortable and kind of got into a little groove there.”
And a grove it was. The Greyhounds won 10 games in a row before losing back-to-back outings to Locust Grove in the region championship. It was the only time Jones County has lost two games in a row this season.
Lyons said the team’s improved play was because of renewed confidence.
“We found out the type of team we were offensively and defensively,” Lyons said. “The girls have embraced what we’re doing. We’re peaking at the right time. We’re playing our best ball when we should.”
The Greyhounds peaked at the end of region play, and even though they didn’t win the region title, they have won 14 of their past 16 games.
“You just try to build that confidence in them and let them know this is what you do best,” Lyons said. “I’m a huge advocate for ‘recognize your weaknesses but work on your strength.’ So our goal is to find whatever each girl does best, and that’s what they’re bringing to the team. I’m not going to set them up for failure.”
One of the players leading the charge is senior catcher Kaylin Curry. Of 29 attempted stolen bases this season, she has thrown out 23 runners. Curry said the team’s improvement is the result of better chemistry.
“We bond more as a team, and we get along well,” Curry said. “The seniors are the leaders. We’re in charge. We just kind of all get along, and we all know our roles. There’s no, ‘Oh, I’m scared of these seniors or the juniors trying to be more important than us.’ ”
Lyons noted how important chemistry was for players in softball. He said it’s his job to get everyone on the same page, and even though it may seem difficult to do that with a young team, Lyons said it’s easier at Jones County.
With only one high school in the county, he knows which players will be moving up each year because he can watch them throughout middle school.
“It’s very much a blessing for the coach,” Lyons said. “You have an idea. You’ve seen these girls play.”
Lyons’ Jones County team will play Walnut Grove in Columbus in the Class 5A championship tournament at 3 p.m. on Thursday. It’s not the first time Lyons or Curry has been in the Elite Eight.
Curry reached this point as a sophomore. As a freshman and junior, her teams lost in the first round of the state playoffs. She said one thing is different this year: chemistry.
“Chemistry and bonding as a team is everything,” Curry said.
She noted that, in her freshman and junior years, there was team drama. As a sophomore, she said, “We all got along as a team. The seniors knew got along, and we just knew our niche. If you don’t like the girls and you just get tired of seeing them every day, you’re not going to want to continue playing.”
In order to succeed this week, Lyons said Jones County must embrace the stage. He said the players should approach the tournament with the same attitude they have had all season and have fun.
“It’s about being in the moment,” Lyons said. “It’s about being able to perform and embrace all the hoopla and embrace whatever fear they may be putting on themselves.”