Family Fun Knights

With energetic coach, new attitude Christian softball is much-improved

by C. Jemal Horton

In more ways than one, Charlotte Christian softball coach Cee Brooks has gotten a lift from players (from left) Ashley Israel, Meredith Harris, Ashley Richardson and Mackenzie Wilson. C. Jemal Horton/SCW photo

The popping sound of big yellow softballs slamming into gloves before a recent Charlotte Christian practice is interrupted only by the occasional eruption of giggles. One minute, a poker-faced Knight is firing one in to a teammate as they have not-so-soft toss in the outfield and, in an instant, a line of players is strewn on the manicured greenery, bellowing with laughter.

This is life on the 2012 Charlotte Christian softball team.

With the struggles of recent years a distant memory, there have been plenty of reasons to smile this season. And it starts with a sparkling win-loss record and a 25-year-old coach who doesn’t mind being the first one to lighten the mood.

“You have to have fun with it,” said second-year Knights coach Cee Brooks in a Deep Southern drawl that has become famous around the Sardis Road campus.

“It’s all about what you bring out here and project to the girls.”

Brooks uses a mock monotone voice to drive home her point.

“If I’m out here like this: ‘Come … on, girls. … Let’s … go,’ then they can see through that and it won’t reach them,” Brooks said. “But if I’m energetic, if I’m encouraging, then they’re going to be excited to be here. They’re going to be like, ‘All right! Let’s go get after it! Let’s get this win!’

“I want to leave them with no choice but to be excited and expecting to win.”

And the Knights have done that with aplomb this year. After their April 10 conference victory over Providence Day, the Knights sported a 9-2 overall record and a 2-0 league mark that had them in first place in the Charlotte Independent Schools Athletic Association.

They have won games this season by out-battling their opponents, as they did in a 4-1 decision while handing highly regarded Indian Trial Metrolina Christian its only loss of the season. And they have won games by purely dominating the opposition, which sophomore pitcher Mackenzie Wilson did when she hurled a perfect game to beat Strong Vincent (Pa.), 10-0, on March 29.

And to think: Charlotte Christian has done it all with a roster of just 10 healthy players.

“But these 10 we have out here will get it done,” Brooks said matter-of-factly. “I have high expectations for our team. Regardless of what happened in the past here, I came into the season with high hopes. I told the parents (and) the players, ‘This is what I expect. Here are our goals. Let’s strive for this.’”

As a result, the softball program that made its most recent state playoff appearance in 2009 – when the Knights finished with a 3-12 record – has begun carving out a place for itself in a sports landscape that was highlighted by the school’s ballyhooed basketball, football and baseball programs.

“With the way we’ve played, we’re definitely getting a lot more credit around school than we have in the past,” said freshman shortstop Meredith Harris. “It feels good that we’re working hard and we’re finally getting recognized for that.”

Wilson, who owns an 8-2 record on the mound, echoed those sentiments.

“Things are a lot better,” said the right-hander who owns a 0.71 ERA with 37 strikeouts. “People are starting to notice us, and we’ve gotten a lot more confidence from that. We’re just aware that we’re one of the top dogs, I guess, in our conference. It makes us feel stronger knowing that people are watching.”

And they usually put on a show under the glare of the spotlight, as the Knights have averaged more than nine runs per game. In addition to her pitching prowess, Wilson has shined at the plate, leading the team with a .489 batting average and ranking second with 11 RBIs.

Junior right fielder Ashley Israel, who played at Ardrey Kell last year, has been a spark while batting in the Nos. 1 and 2 spots, registering a .438 average with seven RBIs and six stolen bases. And Harris comes in with a .424 average, six RBIs and seven base swipes. Israel and Harris have made some eye-popping defensive plays, too.

“Meredith has made a couple of nice double plays this year,” Brooks said. “And with Ashley, she’s so confident in her abilities. If it’s hit to her, I’m confident that she’s going to get that out.”

Another freshman, infielder Madison Haislip, sports a .357 batting average with seven RBIs and six stolen bases. And an additional key contributor is junior center fielder Ashley Richardson, who hits .381 with a team-high 12 RBIs.

“(Richardson) embodies what a teammate should look like,” Brooks said. “She’s coachable. She’s willing to listen and take that criticism. She works hard, she’s willing to make that extra effort. She’s really stepped up, knowing that the team needs her.

“All my players have done that.”

Which is one of the reasons, the players said, that they go out of their way to have fun, to appreciate the moment. With just 10 players on the roster, every Knight plays a critical role. Plus, with only one senior on the squad (catcher/outfielder Rachel Bonnell) few of them know what it’s like to be successful on the varsity level – officially anyway.

Last year, with just 11 players on the team, the Knights posted a 9-4 record. But because their roster included two seventh-graders and an eighth-grader, they weren’t eligible to compete for the CISAA title or a state playoff spot. Nonetheless, the strides they made in 2011 helped make them hungrier to prove themselves this season.

The players credit Brooks, a former standout shortstop for the Charlotte 49ers, for putting them in position to capitalize on last year’s experience.

“Her energy just kinds of feeds us,” Harris said of Brooks. “If she gets really pumped up, we get really pumped up. It’s more of a family this year than it has been in the past. We’re a lot closer, and I feel like a lot of success is going to come from us being able to understand each other.”

And then there’s the fun that comes with Brooks’ coaching style.

“I love her,” Wilson said. “She’s one of the best coaches I’ve had. She makes us pumped up. She’s always telling us to cheer for each other and stuff. She can definitely get on us, but we usually need it. It always helps us.”

So this spring, the Knights have hopes – and a serious chance – of winning their first conference title since 2007, which also was the last year the program had a player named to the all-state squad (Bethany Mitchell).

Brooks, of course, grins and says anything is possible with this team.

“If you have interest from the players, if you work hard to create that culture of striving for excellence on the softball field, it can happen,” Brooks said. “This school can be recognized not only for basketball or football or being a baseball powerhouse; it can be recognized for softball, too. That’s what I’m trying to bring here because I love the game. I’m trying to motivate (the players) and promote things so people here are excited about softball.

“I think we’re making really good strides.”

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