MABEN — The response to tragedy was natural.
The baseball and softball teams of East Webster High School had sports put into perspective when a powerful tornado — one of dozens across Mississippi and Alabama — ripped through the Cumberland community and left their school in rubble.
The gym where most of the multi-sport athletes played basketball is destroyed. The football locker rooms and the weight room were demolished. Their baseball and softball fields were destroyed, too.
In an instant, their respective playoff series scheduled that upcoming weekend didn”t matter.
Having to practice at Ackerman High and TO play games at Eupora and Houston — normally inconveniences — seemed like a refuge from the flattened buildings that used to be their school.
“The kids haven”t missed a beat,” East Webster baseball coach Wes Johnson said. “We had nobody hurt and no kids lost their homes. Some had damage to their homes, but nobody lost their homes.
“We”re healthy, and it seems like it”s given them a whole new focus on what they”re doing. They”re a little more serious about what”s going on, and it seems to me like they”re trying to relish the opportunity they”ve been given.”
Returning to school, the centerpiece of the small community, wasn”t an option. Four days after the tornado, community members and area volunteers cleaned classrooms, organized supply efforts, and turned the Wood College campus in nearby Mathiston into the temporary East Webster High School.
The student-athletes want you to know: Their playoff runs are dedicated to you.
“It”s gotten us all together and thinking we”re gonna need a new (state championship) poster to put in our school,” junior pitcher Ty Hendrix said. “Everybody has come together, and everybody”s mind is working alike. The community supports this school like you wouldn”t believe, so we want to give them something to be proud of.”
Johnson said it”s likely East Webster High School will have to hold classes at Wood College in 2011-12.
The Wolverines haven”t won a state title since 2008, when it clinched its second championship in three seasons.
East Webster”s softball team won four straight Class 1A titles from 2006-09.
Both squads missed the playoffs last season, and though they didn”t envision a tragedy galvanizing team unity and narrowing the focus on winning it all, they don”t mind using it as motivation.
“Were the girls going to be mentally ready to play softball?” East Webster softball coach Maleah Brown said. “There was no way of telling how everything would affect them because softball was the last thing on our minds. Our first practice after the storm, I asked them if they were ready to play, and they all were.”
East Webster (16-6) will face Mantachie in a best-of-three series beginning at 6 tonight in Eupora High School, where they”ll play their home games for the remainder of the playoffs. Game 2 will be at 11 a.m. Saturday in Mantachie. If needed, Game 3 will be at 1 p.m.
With a trip to the North State title game two wins away, Brown said the team”s “one-game-at-a-time” approach has worked to perfection.
“At the beginning of the season, I was concerned about making the playoffs because one game we”d look good, then the next game we”d struggle,” Brown said. “But our six losses came to bigger schools or Hatley, which beat us twice, so we haven”t lost to anyone worse than us. But I feel like we”re starting to click and execute. We”re getting runners in scoring position and getting them in. Swayze (Hollenhead) has been come a long way on the mound since last year.”
East Webster”s baseball team (19-6) is coming off a sweep of Strayhorn in the second round of the 2A playoffs, rolling to 16-1 and 15-0 wins ahead of its weekend series against Mantachie.
East Webster will play at Mantachie at 6 p.m. Friday in Game 1 and at 1 p.m. Saturday in Houston. If necessary, Game 3 will be Monday at Mantachie.
Johnson admits the tragedy has given his team a boost in morale and focus, but he started to see it come together several weeks ago.
“I”ve seen that happen a couple of other times, when we won the state championship in ”06 and ”08,” Johnson said. “It”s really hard to put your finger on what makes 17- and 18-year-old kids go through those lapses in focus. I don”t know if it”s what happened with the tornado, or if it”s the guys knowing we”re down to the end and we”re gonna be done if we don”t pull together. Either way, it”s good to see happening at the right time.”