MARIETTA — It is not easy for softball players to attend practice on a daily basis when their team is losing games before the fourth inning.
That is exactly what the Marietta players experienced three years ago. The Lady Blue Devils were 0-22 that season with 20 being decided by the 15-run mercy rule.
Having to endure the constant humiliation of being blown out, not a single player quit on coach Neal Sammons during his inaugural season. In fact, no one has quit on him yet, and he is beginning his fourth year.
And it is very unlikely anyone will quit on him this season.
Marietta is 7-3 overall to start the season, 2-2 in Region 3AAAAAAA, and it won its own Marietta Invitational. Lady Blue Devils have equaled their win total in 2018, and it is still August. They are also on pace to make their first postseason appearance since fastpitch launched 20 years ago.
Marietta’s motto this season is “Our Time.”
When Sammons first took over, he laid out a five-year plan, which started with that dreadful 2016 campaign. He wanted to keep the game simple and fun.
“The biggest thing for me was to tell the girls that the scoreboard was just numbers for people to judge,” Sammons said. “I tried to make sure that they understood that ‘As long as you’re out there trying hard and giving it your all. It doesn’t matter what the scoreboard says. We’re going to be winners in the long run.”
Sammons said he tried anything he could to that season keep the players’ interest and morale high in 2016. He organized “Fun Fridays” where the Lady Blue Devils would partake in team-building activities instead of practicing. One Friday, they played kickball and gave away free ice cream at the concessions.
“That first year was really about setting a foundation for us to grow on,” Sammons said. “We were probably not going to win that much. If we do, that’s great. If not, let’s keep building, keep building and keep building, and try to get some interest.”
Senior outfielder Sarah Brown recalls experiencing that winless season.
She he said there were players who never picked up a softball before, and the team welcomed them in order to grow in numbers, even if it sacrifices wins. And summer practices made it tough to develop their skills because they weren’t mandatory.
“Girls who don’t know the game, you have to teach them the game first,” Brown said. “And that takes a lot of time out of it. Half way through the summer, the girls have finally learned the game and now you actually have to put learning into skills. It takes time.”
Once that 2016 season mercifully ended, the team had the entire offseason to hone their skills while Sammons visited the middle school to build in numbers and talent.
Once the 2017 campaign got underway, Marietta’s games started extending into the fourth inning, which was cause for celebration as if they had won the game. And they got to experience victory five games into the season when the Lady Blue Devils beat Pebblebrook 13-5.
Marietta ended up winning four that year with two coming against New Manchester.
“I intentionally tried to schedule some teams who were a little bit more like us so we could get some momentum and a little confidence,” Sammons said.
In Year 3, Marietta was equipped with a more experienced pitcher in McKenzie Walker, and its win total jumped to seven, which included a victory over 3AAAAAAA rival McEachern, the Lady Blue Devils’ first region victory since the 2013.
This year, the Lady Blue Devils appears to have even a stronger pitcher in Walker’s younger sister McKaela, who is only a freshman. They also have six players who play year-round.
On the circle, McKaela Walker looks to be a long-term answer in taking over for McKenzie, now playing third base. She’s 5-2 on the year and has 75 strikeouts in nine games played to only 13 walks. Her ERA is now at 1.38.
“In softball, if you have a pitcher, you can compete better,” Sammons said. “Having a pitcher that can keep us in games and make us compete, I’m able to put some of my better athletes out in the field instead of having to mix and match them in certain spots.”
Going 4-0 to start the season as well as winning the Marietta Invitational Tournament helped the Lady Blue Devils get a taste of what it is like to win on a regular basis.
They already have region wins over North Cobb and McEachern. They came close to beating North Paulding, falling 1-0, after failing to even compete with the Lady Wolfpack in recent years.
Offensively, Zoe Adams is hitting .681 with 10 RBIs, which ties McKaela Walker for the team lead. MiKayla Duke is at .591 with nine runs batted in.
“Winning makes you want to be competitive and more of a team player,” Adams said. “It makes me want to do anything in my willpower to make sure that we win.”