By Jake Winfrey
The Cullman Times
Entering her first year as head coach of Cullman’s softball program, Stephanie Barlow figured her young Bearcat squad would probably endure some early-season growing pains — and she was right.
Following a tough 2-13 start, the Black and Gold could have folded the tent and given up on its 2013 campaign, attributing the down year to a difficult schedule and a roster littered with freshmen and eighth-graders.
But for anyone who knows Barlow or Cullman’s proud tradition, that simply wasn’t going to happen.
“Those first few weeks were rough,” Barlow admitted. “We had a lot of rainouts and played some really good 6A teams. However, they never let it get them down. I told them if they could play well against top competition that nothing could stop us down the road.”
Despite the rocky start, the Bearcats slowly began to turn their season around.
According to Barlow, momentum shifted for the better and team chemistry began to click sometime during the squad’s spring break tournament in Gulf Shores back in March.
“I think the girls figured out how to win then,” she said. “They learned how to fight and realized they could start coming back and winning these games. They realized they were all capable of hitting the ball.”
With a fresh mindset, Cullman slowly improved toward the end of the regular season, as the underclassmen became more and more accustomed to doing what it took to compete and be more consistent.
After falling to top-seeded Hartselle in the area tournament, the Bearcats edged West Point 6-4 before upsetting East Limestone 4-0 to earn a spot in the North Regional Tournament in Huntsville this past weekend.
“We didn’t really go into Huntsville with one single goal in mind,” Barlow said. “We all just wanted to go there, play our best and make some noise.”
It couldn’t have gotten much louder for the Black and Gold on Friday night, when they upset No. 4 Lawrence County 4-1 to advance in the winners’ bracket.
“That was something that excited all of us,” Barlow said. “Everything clicked for us in that game. Our chemistry was there, we hit and we pitched. It really gave us excitement thinking about the road ahead.”
The Bearcats went on to sandwich a 9-0 win over Muscle Shoals between two losses to No. 3 Southside-Gadsden and Lawrence County to end their season at 18-28 overall.
Although the record might not show it, Barlow knows her team is worlds better than they were to start the season.
Freshman Claire Jenkins and eighth-grader Olivia Schwaiger were big reasons for the Cats’ success.
Jenkins was a key cog both on the mound and at the plate for Cullman, while Schwaiger pitched a three-hit shutout against the Trojans during the playoff run.
“Claire’s been a great kid for us,” Barlow said. “She’s our rally starter at the top of the lineup. Olivia really hit her stride after we brought her up from junior varsity. She works her tail off.”
With two rising stars and just one departing senior — slugger Hayden Short — it’s easy to see why the first-year coach is eager to get back out on the field next season.
“This is such a great team in terms of chemistry and how well they all play together,” Barlow said. “Knowing that you are going to have that kind of team for the next three or four years, it’s exciting for me as a coach.”
‰ Jake Winfrey can be reached at 256-734-2131, ext. 258 or at firstname.lastname@example.org.