The Leland Ponytail softball state champs earn the coveted Sportsmanship Trophy at World Series.
The Leland Ponytail softball team recently defeated six other teams in the double-elimination tournament to win the state title, which sent them to the World Series in Alexandria, Louisiana. Although they came in fifth place out of 12 teams in that tournament, these 11 and 12-year-olds earned the Sportsmanship trophy.
“That’s a huge accomplishment,” says manager and first base coach Jade Howard, whose daughter, Jada Thomas, is pitcher and also plays short stop on the team. “Our kids have that good Southern hospitality. On the ballfield it’s grit. When the game is over, our girls are congratulating the other team, even if we lost.” She adds that Leland was the only team out of the whole World Series doing that.
Howard says the Sportsmanship trophy is about 4 feet tall, bigger than the championship trophy, and will probably be displayed in the Leland Dixie Complex.
“[That award] is huge to me,” says assistant coach David Thrift, whose daughter, Lilly Thrift, is center fielder. “It tells me the parents and coaches are doing their job. The girls propped up other teams and cheered them on. I would like that World Series trophy, but I am far more proud of those girls for doing it the right way [with sportsmanship].”
Third base coach Eddie Wittkofsky says Leland stayed on the field after they defeated Tennessee and sang songs and clapped as every girl on that team was recognized and given their medals. The director of the Tennessee team told him they appreciated the respect. “That shows we teach the girls values, not just softball,” Wittkofsky says.
Kassira Harrelson, member of the Leland Dixie Softball board, says, “As a board member, it makes me proud that this is the team that represented North Carolina in the World Series. The Sportsmanship award is probably the most prestigious award you can get.”
Howard adds another point. When Leland played Alabama, one of the Leland players got hurt. Usually when a player gets hurt, everybody takes a knee. “Our girls were the only ones taking a knee,” she says. “It just shows the compassion, not just for themselves but for other people around them. Our parents were cheering on the other teams as well. There’s no point in being nasty to each other. Our parents were so classy and amazing through this whole experience.”
The coaches emphasize that they along with the team, parents and community, consider themselves a family. “It was the biggest group of family as far as working toward a common goal that I’ve ever been part of,” Thrift says.
“Without the parents and the community support there’s no way we ever get to [the World Series],” Wittkofsky says. Fundraising garnered $21,000, which was divided evenly among the girls to pay for expenses to Alexandria.
All coaches and Harrelson cite the last two games against South Brunswick at the state tournament as the most challenging of all the games they played. They had lost twice to South Brunswick in the District tournament but as second place winners were invited to Cherryville, where the state tournament was held. As teams were eliminated, it came down to South Brunswick being undefeated while Leland had one loss: to South Brunswick. “We had to beat them back-to-back in order to win the state title,” Howard says.
She explains that the girls’ performance at the first South Brunswick game was phenomenal. “After they won that game, there was nothing to stop them. They were on cloud nine.” The score was 7-6. Only 45 minutes later, they had to face the team again. They won the second game 5-4.
“It’s a phenomenal experience to watch them come together and realize they are a team and they were all in it together,” Thrift says.
With 12 teams at the World Series, Howard says the game against Tennessee was the hardest to win.
“We got a lead in the first inning by 12 runs,” she says. “By the 3rd inning, the girls started slacking off and having more fun instead of playing hard.” Tennessee began scoring. “We had a ‘Come to Jesus’ meeting and told the girls how fast tables turn. Once they realized that, it was 100 percent heart.” Leland won 12-9.
“I’m excited and happy for what these girls accomplished,” Wittkofsky says. “They left an impact out there as far as how good they played and the sportsmanship they had. I’m proud to be part of it.”
“These girls left the impression on everybody there on who North Carolina is,” Howard adds.