By RYAN HERMAN
The way from Boger City to Alexandria, La., is more than 800 miles and over 13 hours by car.
It was the best ride a group of 8-year-old girls ever had.
The Boger City Optimist 8-under softball team’s goal of winning a national championship in the Dixie Darlings softball world series may have ended Wednesday night with a fourth place finish, but that didn’t stop everyone involved, from the 12 players to their coaches, from soaking in what had indeed just happened.
It was the first time a Dixie Darlings-aged softball team from the Boger City Optimist Club had played in a world series, much less won two games en route to the winners’ bracket final.
Head coach Shane Huss found it hard to describe what his team had just experienced, leaning on the words of a parent of one of the players.
“He said, ‘It’s the greatest ride of my life.’ And that’s the way I feel,” Huss said on Thursday. “I don’t know if I’ll ever get back there again. It takes a lot of talent. It takes a lot of luck. It takes a team like this, and it has been probably one of the biggest rides of my life.
“We’re on the mountain top right now.”
The team –– Madison Sipe, Emily Newell, Lilly Stump, Maggie Price, Ellie Huss, Erin Homesley, Sylvia Burroughs, Sydney Hudson, Alanie O’Shields, Emma Goodson, Ashley Antonio and Tessa Hunt, coached by J.R. Burroughs, Shane Hudson, Stephen Sipe and Huss –– was eliminated on Wednesday night by Tennessee state champion Madison Central, 22-11. But that didn’t deter it from relishing what it had accomplished.
“Even though we didn’t win the world (series), to get that far, to be in a position to play for one of the top three spots of the world series championship is something that I’ll never forget,” Huss said.
The team, which had seven players that returned from last summer’s all-star team, ran through District 2 play by outscoring its opponents 92-8, Huss said.
Huss said he knew his team had the ability to hit, but when it flashed some leather to take away runs, he felt a long postseason run was possible.
“I told them from Day 1 that this was a special group,” Huss said. “When I seen how good our defense was, I knew that there was no way that we could get blown out of any game. I didn’t care what the opposition had for us as far as on the offense. I felt like our defense was good enough to put us in a situation to where we could win any game we wanted to.”
Huss said the most telling thing about his team was its dedication. He said after practice –– which sometimes lasted as long as three hours –– there were girls who simply didn’t want to leave.
“This is a very special group. I think this group in particular, they would do anything we asked,” Huss said. “I don’t care what practice it was, I always had a handful of them, a half-dozen of them, wanting to hit (extra) batting practice at the end.
“It was just their dedication, and of course their talent.”
The Boger City Optimist Club pulls from a population size of roughly 25,000, Huss said, which is smaller than most clubs from the 11 southern states that participate in Dixie Softball.
That alone shows how talented his 12 girls are, Huss said.
“We pull from about 25,000 people. … That makes it even more special that we are such a small group but we’re able to play with the big boys,” he said.
Adding to the small-town discussion was the fact that no one had heard of Boger City when the team arrived in Alexandria.
Huss said he was approached on several occasions by people inquiring as to where his team was from. When describing Boger City, he said he’d name cities such as Hickory, Gastonia and Charlotte, which were familiar to some.
After a fourth-place national finish out of the hundreds of teams that make up Dixie Softball, people now know about Boger City.
“I definitely think it put us on the map. Nobody’s heard of us. Nobody knew nothing about us,” Huss said. “I think this is something that is very good for our organization. It only helps whenever you see a name like that and it gets recognized now. We were there. We competed. And we were there with the powerhouses that were supposed to win it.”
Speaking of powerhouses, Huss even got a taste of what it’s like to walk in the shoes of prominent college head coaches such as Rick Pitino of Louisville’s men’s basketball team and Alabama football coach Nick Saban –– both reining national champions.
Huss had a team that came together, worked hard, and achieved something great.
It’s a team that, although all 12 will have aged out of the 8-under Darlings come next year, Huss doesn’t want to let go of.
“I kind of, on a minute scale, can see the way some of these big time college football and basketball coaches, what they go through,” he said, “and when you have a special group you just want to hold on to them for the rest of your life.”