By Donnell Suggs
The old saying goes that ‘you only live once,’ and the same can be said of being a high school athlete. That’s what we were thinking when the idea of getting all of the senior baseball and softball players from both local high schools together for a “team” photo shoot. In their case you can only live four times until your scholastic career officially comes to an end so what better time than now to get them all together for an unprecedented meeting. At both Chambers Academy and LaFayette High School the baseball and softball senior student-athletes are putting a cap on their careers. The best days of their lives are ahead of them, for some of them the best moments of their athletic careers are also on the horizon. Others will be successful off of the diamond but for sure they all learned quality life lessons while playing ball for their respective schools. From this point forward their lives will never be the same.
The black and gold LaFayette High School uniforms and white and blue Chambers Academy uniforms rest on the players like blankets of confidence. Getting the players, 17-year olds with plenty of other places they’d rather be after school, to commit to a photo shoot took even more confidence from The LaFayette Sun Sales Manager and de facto sports photographer Brooke Colley. As the players took their positions outside of City Hall, in front of the statue of boxing legend and LaFayette native Joe Louis, the simplicity of putting on a baseball and softball uniform and representing the city of LaFayette and the state of Alabama took on a more serious tone. Arms folded across their chest, not a smile to be found amongst them, the players were from all walks of life, different family dynamics, different races, creeds and colors but at this one instance with their serious looking facial expressions, all eight of the players that attended the shoot (LaFayette High School senior pitcher and shortstop Kentarius Harris and Chambers Academy senior first baseman and pitcher Jamie Brown are not pictured in the group shot) were exactly the same: They were all ball players, plain and simple.
Ragan Barnes, Christian Gillespie, Erical Johnson, Tamara Lyons, Anslee Reese, Hannah Slay, Isaiah Todd and Brittney Williams all helped their teams have solid seasons this spring with the Lady Rebels of Chambers Academy continuing their season into the upcoming Alabama Independent School Association state tournament. According to their coaches the players in the above and accompanying photos have done much more than just help their teams win ball games. “Kentarius [Harris] is a guy that changed the atmosphere of the team,” says Michael Pattillo, LaFayette High School’s baseball coach and offensive line coach of the player who could not attend the photo session because he had to be at work after school. “He’s a pretty good athlete and the abilities he has have just made the team better.” LaFayette’s principal echoes those sentiments, “An outstanding athlete, he has been very instrumental in the success of the baseball team this season,” said Don Turner via email. Harris transferred into the Bulldog program from Opelika High School and from the start of the baseball season, as early as pre-season in fact, became a team leader. “Harris is a very coachable kid,” says Pattillo. Harris drove in four runs on two hits during the Bulldogs largest victory of the season, an 18-2 drubbing of Loachapoka on April 13. Two days later during a 13-3 Bulldog victory over Lanett, Harris pitched a complete game with nine strikeouts to go along with two more hits and three RBI. The words “coachable kid” could not always be said in regards to baseball players at LaFayette High School. Most if not all of the school’s premiere athletes made their way to the football field and basketball courts. Leaving the baseball team with only barely enough players to fill out a roster. The Bulldogs had a rough 2016 season, winning only a handful of games -two of which were against rival Lanett High School- while having to deal with some distractions this season. One of the Bulldog players that stayed the course for all four years is right fielder Isaiah Todd. Turner calls Todd “a very dedicated student and athlete,” and Pattillo counts his lucky stars that he had Todd on his teams despite the lack of on-field success by the Bulldogs. “Isaiah is one of those kids that does what he’s asked,” says Pattillo. “He’s one of the guys you want to have on your team.”
The Chambers Academy softball team is the most successful baseball/softball program in the city of LaFayette at the moment and that’s not by happenstance. The Lady Rebels have four senior starters that have dedicated years of their young lives to get to this particular point. Chambers Academy is playing in the state tournament this weekend at Lagoon Park in Montgomery and a huge part of the credit for that opportunity -win or lose- will go to the center fielder Barnes, second baseman Reese, catcher Slay and pitcher Williams. Despite the season still being underway it’s hard for Lady Rebel softball coach Brandi Fuller to not think about the future. A future without her senior stars. “My four seniors will be sorely missed next year,” she wrote via a recent text message exchange. “They are leaders on and off the field and all played critical roles on the field athletically. They provided great hitting, pitching and solid defense this season.”
Brittney Williams, The 2016 LaFayette Sun Softball Player of the Year, consistently credits her catcher, Slay for her recent success during this her only season at Chambers Academy after transferring from Beulah High School. Williams took over as the Lady Rebels number one starter and dominated the competition. The transition from a good public school softball program at Beulah to playing ball at Chambers Academy was as seamless as the look of one her fast balls. She was far from alone though.
Slay and Reese can easily be described as Chambers Academy softball-lifers after having played softball at the school since they were in the 5th and 6th grades, respectively. Barnes, a stallworth second base, began her playing career at Chambers Academy as a sophomore. All athletes are important to their respective teams in their own special ways but these four players are without a doubt going to take with them a wealth of softball knowledge, skill and hopefully more. “I do hope they know that their faith in God and their relationship with Jesus Christ is more important than any ball game they play,” says Fuller.
It is faith and hard work that brought them this far after all, no matter what your belief system or lack thereof may be, playing the game the right way and working just as hard in the classroom is something we can all get behind and believe in. Maybe one or two will continue their playing careers on the collegiate level but all will be moving on to greater things. The passion they played softball with for season after season at Chambers Academy is the first of many commitments the girls, soon-to-be young ladies will have to repeat. This success is the first of many. “I hope they take that with them,” says Fuller.
The LaFayette Lady Bulldogs softball team won their first game of the season months after its beginning. To say the 2016 season was a rough one would be a massive understatement. The Lady Bulldogs were even coached by the school’s Athletic Director and head football coach James Lucas, an admitted softball novice. Team leadership would be of the utmost importance if the team was going to be able to re-establish some semblance of a softball program. Enter the seniors.
Erical Johnson and Tamara Lyons, representing LaFayette High School, took their places for the photo shoot. Johnson on the left, Lyons on the right, both were bracketed by Chambers Academy Lady Rebels. Both did their best to represent the LaFayette High School senior class on the diamond this season too. “Ms. Johnson and Ms. Lyons are two outstanding young ladies,” says Principal Turner. “They have made great contributions to the athletic programs here at LaFayette High School.” Lucas might be the saddest to see them go after graduation. “I needed help from both of them this season as far as with getting the team on the same page,” he says. “They were both a huge help as team leaders.” Johnson transferred in from Auburn High School and played left field for the Lady Bulldogs. Lyons pitched and played shortstop for three seasons while also playing basketball. Tamara, a LaFayette native, played four seasons for the Lady Bulldogs basketball program. Her time as a guard/forward on the basketball court made her a better player on the softball diamond and helped her understand the emotional rollercoaster that ultimately was the Lady Bulldogs’ softball season.
The Lady Bulldogs might not have been very successful on the field in regards to wins but Lyons’ play has her coach thinking she can play on the collegiate level. “We’re looking to get her some scholarship opportunities from area colleges,” said Lucas during a recent phone interview for this story. When informed by this reporter that Lyons was planning to attend Alabama State University, forgo playing softball (and by most accounts basketball, the Hornets play in the competitive Division 1 Southwest Athletic Conference. Lyons averaged 5 points and a little over 4 rebounds in 23 games this season.) and focus solely on majoring in Outpatient Therapy, Lucas said, “She’s too good to give up playing softball.” Thus the impact of a very good players on the people around her. They can’t believe she would ever put the glove and bat down.
Starting on Friday, May 6 the AISA state baseball tournament is going to be held at Paterson Field in Montgomery. The historic grounds, capacity 7,000, will be filled with fans and college scouts looking for the next big arm out of a small school. The proverbial diamond in the rough. Chambers Academy won’t be participating in this year’s tournament however, the Rebels finished the 2016 season with a 4-22 overall record. While they might not have dominated their opponents similar to the Rebel basketball and football programs, seniors Jamie Brown and Christian Gillespie got the most out of their final year in blue and white. Both players played their entire four years of high school on the football team (Brown played basketball as well) and brought that winning spirit to the baseball. Rough season aside, Chambers Academy baseball coach Matt Smith knows how much both players brought to the table to every team meeting, practice and game. “I’m going to really miss coaching them,” said Smith about Brown and Gillespie during a recent phone conversation. “Christian and Jamie are both very strong students in the classroom, it’s rare to find but they are truly student-athletes.” Both players will finish the school term on the A/B honor roll. If that doesn’t scream “student-athlete” to you then what will? “Each one of them have the utmost respect from their teachers and fellow classmates,” says Smith. I guess that will.
Brown, a tight end on the football field, used his height and good hands at first base and as a pitcher for the Rebels. “He became a much better first baseman as his career advanced,” says Smith. Brown has plans to take the unique skill set that helped him become a starter on the football, basketball and baseball teams as a senior into the real world. “Jamie is aspiring to become a firefighter,” says Smith.
Gillespie might one day become a civil servant himself, he already has the reputation worthy of a local politician. “Christian’s a great leader, kids really follow him,” says Smith. Gillespie played his only season of baseball this year and after patrolling centerfield and leading off for the Rebels, one could only imagine how good of a ball player he might be if he wasn’t such a good running back. “He’s got unbelievable speed, I gave him the green light to steal whenever he was on base,” said Smith through a chuckle. Gillespie rushed for more than 2,000 yards during his senior season and has a goal to play college football this fall. “Christian plans to play at the collegiate level and is currently leaning towards attending Huntingdon College (Montgomery),” said Smith. The Division III Hawks went 10-2 during the 2015 season, winning all seven of their USA South Athletic Conference games in the process. There’s no reason to believe an athlete of Gillespie’s caliber couldn’t make the Hawks roster. It would be another step in the journey of a bright young man.
During the football season Gillespie took another journey that has little to do with sports and everything to do with the man he will ultimately become: Christian got saved. “That moment was obviously huge for Christian to accept The Lord into his life,” says Smith. “It has and continues to have a positive effect on our community as a whole.” There’s a good chance God sent the affably named Christian Gillespie the first chapter of his life story.
Smith was right when he told me that is was “rare” to find athletes like the ones playing baseball and softball at Chambers Academy and LaFayette High School. Let’s hope the next batch of seniors are anything -even the slightest of similarities will be fine- like this group. About as rare as getting two schools and four teams of ball players together for a photo shoot outside of City Hall in front of a statue of Joe Louis. Rare indeed.