Now One of the State’s Best Programs, Woodruff High’s First Softball
Players Helped Build Successful Program from the Ground Up
Moments That Changed Wolverine History: Part Mime of a 12-Part Series Looking Back at Events Which Changed the Landscape of Woodruff Athletics
By: Garrett Mitchell, Staff Writer
Strong foundations are best laid on level ground, even if the builders have to pick up the loose stones first.
Such was the beginnings of Woodruff High School softball. Founded in 1996, it was among the last athletic teams established at the school, and from a literal rocky start rose a program that is today a steady constant among the most competitive squads in the state.
For a sport that, in the mid 1990’s, was still in its relative infancy at the high school level, fast-pitch softball was perhaps a novelty to some in town. Long before elite travel ball teams dominated the landscape of the sport, pouring yearly talent into the best prep programs, those first Woodruff teams were made up of young ladies who played simply for the love of the game and a desire to be the proverbial brick masons of what they hoped would one day be a successful program.
But first they had to pick up rocks.
“Our first chore was to walk around the field and pick up a glove full of rocks,” recalled Jessica Burnette, a freshman on the first team in 1996 who played second base. “You just knew, you got there, put your cleats on, got your glove, and you had to fill it up with rocks before you started anything. It was quite interesting, but you knew you had to get those rocks up so you didn’t get busted in the face with a bad bounce.”
The first Lady Wolverine teams indeed played on the repurposed intramural kickball field located behind Woodruff Elementary School. Perhaps not the best of facilities, but the daily pre-practice landscaping done by the players was serving a purpose far greater than clearing a potential safety hazard.
It was instilling pride in the early pioneers of Woodruff softball, most of whom had never played the game on a competitive level.
Burnette, who is the granddaughter of Willie Varner, recalled the conversation with her legendary grandfather about joining the program that he had been placed in charge of starting in his final years as the high school’s athletic director.
“I had no experience at all,” she said. “I can remember my grandpa talking to me about it because he was in charge of starting it up. He came to me and asked me what I thought about playing softball. So, I played softball.”
It was a familiar refrain among the members of those first teams, and as one might expect, success did not come early. Woodruff went winless in 1996 and 1997 and was led by two different head coaches in as many years. The late Ted Thern coached that first group, followed the next season by Fran Thomas. The growing pains might have been uncomfortable, but for the players, they understood that through their efforts, better days would be ahead.
Staci Henry was a senior in 1996, and did have a bit of experience playing softball. As one of the elder statesmen of the team, Henry helped instill a passion for the game that kept the Lady Wolverines focused on the greater goals of the fledgling program.
“My mother had started a slow-pitch softball organization and got a few teams together so girls could play, because at that time there wasn’t much for girls to do in town,” Henry said. “The mill was transitioning out at the time, so she started several softball teams and a bunch of us girls who played on those teams went to the high school team and kind of converged there. I even played baseball with some of the boys for a few years, and it just all fell into place when they started the high school team and we were all very excited.”
Henry understood that a team of inexperienced players, many unlike herself that had never played the game, would probably not win many games. But that was ok.
“We were excited because we were the first girls to wear the new uniforms and we were the players for a brand-new team,” she continued. “We didn’t really care as much if we won or lost, you know, because we were a part of something that was going to grow in Woodruff. I was just glad to be a part of something that was going to be the first. We knew we were going to get out picture hung in the gym.”
In 1998, in its third season, the Woodruff High softball team experienced its first touch of success. Lea Ann Skinner was named the third head coach of the program, and as a former college softball catcher, brought a level of experience and knowledge to the team that had previously not existed.
At the same time, several players who had played the fast-pitch game and had travel ball experience transitioned onto the team which raised the level of competitiveness among the entire squad.
Skinner taking over the program was a bit of happenstance, but it came about at exactly the right time.
“Coach (Fran) Thomas was coaching the softball team at the time and we were talking one day, and I found out she had played collegiate volleyball,” recalled Skinner. “I had played collegiate softball, so we went to Coach Varner and it just made sense so we made the switch. She took over volleyball and I became the softball coach. That’s pretty much how it happened.”
Skinner went about improving the fundamentals of the players, again stripping everything down and starting from the bottom up. It was a common theme, but one that worked, and the results begin to show.
“Ground level, that’s the truth,” added Skinner. “A lot of the nuances and a lot of the things girls are able to do now, it was all in the beginning stages then. “What we started doing right away was working on the batter (pitcher and catcher) which is the game within the game. That’s what took the longest to develop. Positions and swinging the bat, that came pretty quick, but the pitching, catching, and controlling baserunners, that was the biggest growing pains during those years.”
As Skinner was revamping and building up the team’s skills, two players with outside experience joined the team. Emily Montjoy (Babb), and Elizabeth Lindman (Hawes) both arrived in 1997, the year prior to Skinner taking over, and their combined leadership and experience led to an immediate improvement in on-field performance by 1998.
“I came in on the second season,” Hawes said. “Emily Babb Montjoy was asked to play and she brought me in as well. I was a pitcher, and the team didn’t have one, so essentially, I became the only pitcher.”
Hawes recalled the tough moments from those years, including facing ridicule from opponents. The low moments, she said, were motivation to strive for greater heights and with each barrier that she and her teammates broke down, the joy felt was unlike anything one could imagine.
“There were times we were literally laughed at by the other team as we lost by another mercy rule,” she said. “We were mortified if a team came early and caught us picking up rocks off the field before the game. And it was humiliating to lose every single game in a season. But ultimately, we paid our dues and it made us better people. It made the program a better program.”
And in 1998 and 1999, the first big breakthroughs were achieved.
The Lady Wolverines won the first game in program history during their third season in ’98, defeating Carolina High by virtue of the 10-run mercy rule that had for over two seasons been a constant fixture of their own defeats. Then, in 1999, Woodruff defeated perennial power Chapman, one of the teams which had been a source of torment during those lean early years.
Hawes recalls that moment vividly.
“When I was a junior, we finally beat Chapman and we lost our darn minds,” she added. “It was one of the best feelings ever. We still had the crappy field and uncomfortable uniforms, but as a program, it was a defining moment for us.”
It would be the first of many.
As the years passed and the first generation of Woodruff softball players graduated, moved on to college, and started their careers, new players came into the program and begin to morph Woodruff softball first into a competitive team, and then into a contender.
The dynamic trio of Jennifer Jones, Dena Messer, and Brandi Mullins led the program to their first play-off appearances in the mid-2000’s. Mullins pitched the first no-hitter in school history against Clinton in 2006, and Jones, an all-state catcher, holds many school hitting records that stand to this day.
And the facilities improved just a bit as well. The new Woodruff High School softball field opened in time for the 2008 season complete with spacious dugouts, a regulation fence, digital scoreboard, and most importantly, a well-manicured and rock free infield.
Oh, and the outfield fence has a few banners on it as well.
Led by pitcher Carly Frady, Woodruff softball won its first play-off district championship in 2012, and again in 2017.
During the 2017 season the Lady Wolverines advanced to the upper-state championship for the first time in school history, facing the most storied program in state history, the Crescent Tigers led by legendary coach Gary Adams.
Woodruff fell in consecutive games to that fabled Crescent program on a rainy May night in 2017, dropping the first game 9-8 in extra innings before being shut out in game two, ending one win short of playing for a state championship.
The Lady Wolverines would face Crescent again during the 2018 district round of the play-offs, and this time, achieved their long-sought vindication. Star pitcher Olivia Patton crushed a three-run home run to tie the game late, and Madison Jacobi drive the game-winning walk-off single through the right side of the infield in the bottom of the seventh inning to at long-last validate Woodruff’s place among the softball greats in the state of South Carolina.
“It was a great feeling to know we had made it that far and that the program had come full-circle,” said Patton. “It felt good knowing that even though we didn’t make it to the state championship, that we were able to make it that far, and we knew we would persevere and come back strong.”
On finally beating Crescent, Patton added, “It was an awesome feeling because Crescent is so good and they are the program that you strive to be like. When you go to their field and see their fence lined with awards and posters and championship banners, it looked like they had hundreds. When we finally beat them, it was a feeling I can’t describe and can never get back. Their coach, he knew, that was our time to win.”
Certainly, that night and the celebration which followed was long-removed from those first Woodruff softball players who picked up rocks before practice. The days of loose stones were long gone because the foundation had been strongly poured down by those who had sacrificed then so that the players of today could stand with a program anchored on solid ground.
For that first generation of Lady Wolverines, the trials, tribulations, and lopsided losses of those first seasons were all worth it.
Henry’s daughter Anna played for Woodruff High many years later, and for Henry it helped bridge the gap from the program she helped build to the success it experiences today.
“It was really fun to see how much the program had grown and how sophisticated it had gotten. Now we were going to this really nice softball field and it was really nice seeing how far they have come. They have so many more resources now than we did.”
Hawes added, “I played for five years and I loved every minute. Having played ball for many years prior to that, it was interesting to be a part of something new. I had my doubts at moments, but I wouldn’t trade the experience for the world. It’s easy to walk into a top-notch program that’s fully funded and already a dominating presence in the league and be satisfied but there is no challenge there and no real personal growth to be had. Being part of something being built from the ground up and putting in the work to earn the respect of other schools and cement our place as a competitive member of the league, that’s more than an awesome athletic opportunity, it’s an opportunity to build real character through adversity. And experiences like that in today’s high school athletic world is rare.”
The footing is solid as concrete now with a stability that has ensured the Lady Wolverines will be a winning team well into the foreseeable future. Woodruff softball has had just two head coaches since 1998, with Skinner leading the program for two stints, along with current head coach Will Lanford.
With a steady influx of young talent on a yearly basis, Woodruff softball is not going anywhere anytime soon. It is a proud continuation of the legacy laid down by a group of determined young ladies in 1996 whose determination to help build something new and great has opened opportunities for the generations of young women in Woodruff that have followed in their cleat marks.
Burnette summed it up best.
“We are part of their history and they are a part of ours,” she said.