By: Seth McKinzie
This feature on Gravette High School Softball is brought to you by:
WOMEN’S HEALTH ASSOCIATES – https://www.whanwa.com/
500 SE Plaza Avenue Bentonville, Arkansas 72712
The Gravette Lady Lions softball team has experienced an enormous amount of success. Among two straight 4A semifinal appearances, tons of press, and a lot of lofty expectations are four seniors who have stuck it out since youth leagues, worked hard behind the scenes, and become the backbone of one of the best softball programs in the state of Arkansas.
*All photos courtesy Odessa Photography
Lion Lettermen had the chance to send Hannah Cole, Sumer Kaba, Emily Ellis, and Devin Rodebaugh some questions so they could get their thoughts out on the upcoming season. These young women have poured a ton of time, sweat, and sacrifice into a program that has gone 47-15 in the last two seasons.
Last year, they helped rally the team after Arkansas Razorbacks commit Cally Kildow missed the entire season due to an injury sustained during basketball. They rallied around Bailey Elmore who dominated in the pitcher’s circle and made a name for herself, earning 4A All-State honors. The ladies supported Central Arkansas commit Gabbi Scott as she had a monster season and was named the Northwest Arkansas Democrat Gazette’s Div. II Player of the Year.
They have seen it all. All, except for a state title. Now, in their own words they tell Lady Lion fans what this season could hold.
LL: We have made the state semifinals two straight seasons and fallen just short of playing for a state title. In your opinion, what does the 2019 version of the Lady Lions need to do in order to make that next leap?
Devin Rodebaugh: This year I believe that in order to make that next leap and go to the championship we need to work on making ourselves and the team better. Focusing on the small things and growing as a team is what is needed to make that leap because while our team is one to be reckoned with, staying at the level we are currently doesn’t suffice. Everyone now knows we have the potential so now it’s time to show them we can make it all the way.
Hannah Cole: I think one of the biggest factors that will definitely motivate us to the next step is making sure we stick together and work together AS A TEAM and put our team as a priority. Towards the end of the year it can be tough to maintain this, but I believe it we figure it out it’ll help us more than we realize.
Sumer Kaba: I feel like we need to fight till the end, just because we have played one team before in regionals and beat them doesn’t mean they won’t put up a fight the next time we see them so we just need to treat every game like we have never played them before and not back down. We need to play like we know how to play. Not get down when the going gets tough, we need to talk up our teammates more and not chit chat during games. We need to watch the game and use our strengths to win.
Emily Ellis: In the last two years, we have grown as a team mentally and physically, and shown that we can overcome adversities. This season we need to continue to prove that we have a lot of “fight” left and that we have the determination to do what it takes day in and day out to show up and give 100%.
LL: Talk about your life with softball. What has it taught you? Memories? Favorite moments? Etc.
Rodebaugh: Playing softball for these last twelve years has taught me the importance of working together. Even if you are not necessarily close to every single person on the team it is important to communicate and work as one in order to win the game. One of my favorite moments was beating Pottsville in the 4A North Regional Tournament my sophomore year, and knowing that we were one of the only teams in 4A to beat them.
Cole: Softball has played a huge role in my life since I was little playing t-ball. I’ve made unbreakable relationships with some of these girls and they’ve changed my life entirely. Softball has taught me to work with people and be coachable, which is key for anything I want to do later in life, but it’s also taught me how to not beat myself up for little things and to notice I have more chances to get up and try again.
Kaba: My life with softball started when I was 4-years-old and it has taught me a lot, not just about the game but also about life. One of the most important things it has taught me is life isn’t always fair and there are going to be things that don’t always work in your favor. Another thing it has taught me is never give up even if you’re having a bad game because you have teammates that will pick me up. One of my favorite memories with softball was making new friends and just having fun with them on and off the field.
Ellis: I began playing this game at the age of 10. I don’t remember life without it, and I am sure next spring will be extremely difficult watching from the stands. I can honestly say that I would not be the person I am today without softball. It has taught me so much from teamwork, perseverance, hard work, trust, leadership, and so much more. I will forever be in debt to this game. The friendships that I have made with teammates, coaches, team families, and opponents will last a lifetime. I remember my first out-of-state tournament, my first home run, when I thought I wanted to be a pitcher, the first time I tried out for catcher, the first pitch I caught on the Lion field. Also, I remember the first time I threw up at a practice, when I ran 10 laps around field #3 at Pop Allum Park, the games I was out while injured. I honestly left tears, sweat, and blood on many fields. At this end of it all I can honestly say I wouldn’t trade it for the world. Thank you softball…for all of it.
LL: What have you worked on as a player to get ready for your final season as a Lady Lion?
Rodebaugh: As a player I have made it to every practice with the mindset to get better. I have taken extra swings outside of practice and worked on the mechanics that I need to work on in order to strengthen the areas that need it most. Not only have I worked on myself, I have also worked with others on my team and focused on making them notice their weaknesses and help them improve in that area.
Cole: As a player I’ve really tried to make softball a fun environment while also making sure things are getting done and we are getting better. I believe the best results come from the girls who are loving what they’re doing, and I know for a fact that comes easy when we know we can crack jokes while also cracking down and becoming better ball players.
Kaba: I have been working on getting better to help my team because I want to better myself for the team not just myself. I get in extra swings when I can and I also do some extra workouts to strengthen myself for the season. I have also taken up becoming an umpire so I know more about the game.
Ellis: Thinking about this being my final season as a Lady Lion is so bittersweet. This team, these coaches, and our community have taught me so much through the last three and a half years, and I will cherish that forever. Working hard at every practice, in the weight room, and encouraging each of my teammates to do the same has added to my leadership role, but off the field I have worked extra hard to establish strong relationships with each of the girls to create trust, loyalty, and respect. Early in the fall, I began attending physical therapy sessions weekly and learning how to rest my knees to prepare for my last season, and I strongly believe that it will show this season.
LL: There is a lot of talent right now in GHS softball. Last year, you had to play the season without Cally. How did the team rally around Bailey Elmore* when she had to shoulder the load from the circle?
Rodebaugh: There was no doubt within our team that Bailey would be able to do her job. We continually supported Bailey and stuck by her side despite all of the comments that were being made about taking on the season without Cally. Bailey did just what she needed to do in order for us to make it as far as we did. She was a huge part of our season last year and she definitely will continue to be this season whether she is on the mound or not.
Cole: Although we missed Cally tremendously and would’ve loved to have had her, Bailey really stepped up and brought her A game into the circle. I had absolutely no worries or doubts because I knew Bailey would’ve had the team’s full support and positive attitudes surrounding her. Bailey is extremely talented and I knew we’d make it just as far if not farther into the season with her. We’ve got a team full of talent and we knew that we all had to step our game up which made us a remarkable opponent last year.
Kaba: We missed having Cally playing with us, but a team is nine players on the field, so we played like we normally would because we are a team. When you have a girl out because of an injury you have to pick yourself up and play on. That is what Lady Lions do!
Ellis: Going into the season, I personally never doubted Bailey’s ability to lead from the circle. After Cally’s freshman year the community, and even the state, was unaware of the “backup” talent that we had up our sleeve. If you’ve been around long, you are aware of the 11 Lady Lion softball players that were apart of the Gravette Bandit travel team that dominated in and around the 4-state area. I had the opportunity to be a part of that team and catch both Cally and Bailey since I was 11-years-old. Everyone on the team was present at practices and scrimmages and knew, that while Bailey’s talent differed from Cally’s, her ability to perform was not lacking in any way.
*Elmore pitched 124.2 innings in 2018 recording a 12-3 record and compiling 110 strikeouts. Elmore was named 4A All State.
LL: How do you feel the conference stacks up this year with the addition of Harrison and Farmington?
Rodebaugh: I don’t know much about Harrison’s softball team but I have no doubt they are going to be a good team to play against, however each year we have played Farmington and they have always been a really good team. Adding them into our conference is definitely going to give us more of a challenge, but I have no less faith in our team being able to pull out a conference championship. This year’s conference teams are definitely going to be tough and we have a target on our back so going into a game with the mindset that “we are going to win” is not an option because wins are not going to just be handed to us.
Cole: I am extremely excited to have Harrison and Farmington in our conference. It’ll give our team even more motivation to work harder, and I love a little competition. Teams like them do nothing but make us better and compete harder and I’m really looking forward to facing them.
Kaba: I feel like we are going to have to play harder and go into those games thinking we are going to have to put up a fight but I know we have a chance to beat them because we have the talent to do it. We need to keep our heads in the game and our eyes on the ball.
Ellis: Our conference was not one to be taken lightly before this addition and nothing changes that now. While we have never played Harrison, Farmington is a solid team with a great coaching staff. Two summers ago, I had the opportunity to play with Coach Osnes (Farmington) and Coach Jones (Gravette) in Conway and I learned a lot. Playing against great athletes is what makes it fun and I can’t wait to see what the district does this season.
LL: Talk about Coach Jones. What are your thoughts on his leadership? What are some things you are glad he does for/with the team?
Rodebaugh: Coach Jones is an amazing coach. He makes you want to get better. He focuses on every single one of his players. While some coaches have trouble going 1-on-1 with every member of the their team he will take the time to go to your tee and work on your hands, legs, etc. Coach Jones makes sure that you are on your way to becoming a better player and he never gives up on you.
Cole: Coach Jones is one of the best coaches I’ve had due to his leadership and his fundamental knowledge. He pushes us to our full potential and makes sure we are getting better while also being able to joke around and have fun. He also cares about us and our personal life outside of softball and always tries to relate and “understand” us girls, which obviously is a hard task for him so can’t blame him but I appreciate everything he does for us.
Kaba: Coach Jones is a good coach and has taught me to dig deeper and play tougher. He has helped me become a better player by seeing things in me that I didn’t see. He has pushed me to be a better first baseman and for that I am thankful. I look forward to using what he has taught me in my next steps in my ball career.
Ellis: I had the opportunity to attend my first practice as a young seventh grader, and from that day forward I have had nothing but respect for Coach Jones. His leadership is a huge part of this team on and off the field. On the field, Coach Jones is fundamentally one of the best coaches in the state. He works harder than anyone to make sure that we are equipped and ready for whatever may happen during season. Off the field, Coach Jones genuinely cares about each and every one of us. We are lucky to have a coach like him – it doesn’t come around often. Coach always tries to relate to us girls and help us see the bigger picture. He picks up on the little things, and sees us as individuals before athletes. His efforts to be sure we have everything we need in the classroom, on the field, and in life has been unreal.
Their coach, Taos Jones, is entering his 12th season at the helm of Gravette softball. Jones appreciates the hard work and sacrifice his four seniors have put into the program over the course of their careers and has seen his share of very good players take the field for the Lady Lions and this group of seniors is no different, especially in the leadership department.
“I’d say leadership is the backbone of any good program,” said Jones. “This program is a reflection of that leadership and those leaders that came before them. I’ve always talked about true leaders building new leaders. I can always rely on this group of seniors to go the extra mile when it comes to commitment to their team. Honestly, I don’t know what I’ll do without this group but, if they’ve done their jobs right, and I know they have, new leadership will emerge to fill a giant void when they’re gone. To be really honest, I know there are hundreds of things they do for this team that I never even know about. That’s what real leadership does. They do what they need to because it is what is best for their team, not because it’s what their coach wants.”
When Cally Kildow missed the entire 2018 season, Jones knew there would need to be several players step up so that the loss was not quite so hurtful. Cole, Ellis, Rodebaugh, and Kaba were among the group that assumed the leadership and responsibility.
“Of course, everyone was hit pretty hard by that (Kildow’s injury) but they did what they had to do,” said Jones. “They dug a little deeper and worked harder. It was more of a mental leadership at that point than anything. They just got going and tried to focus on what they could control and not what was out of their control. They put Cal’s injury behind us and kept everyone’s eyes forward. When adversity like that hits a team they are defined by how they react. I couldn’t be more happy with how this team came together and it was all because of their leadership.”
Jones knows his team enters the 2019 season with very high expectations. Not just from the town of Gravette, but from media, softball fans across the state, and most importantly, the Lady Lions themselves. According to Jones, the four seniors have helped determine what the team’s expectations look like.
The Lady Lions start their season at home March 1 versus Rogers.