When the Lovejoy softball team takes the field next year, they’ll have one unifying focus in mind: honoring the seniors from their 2020 class.
It’s a core that runs just deep five deep — four players (Mackenzie Mitchell, Grace Nguyen, Carlee Schaeffer and Leah Taylor) and team manager Rachel Hoeffner — but one that left its mark on the Lady Leopards under second-year head coach Brittany Lee.
“We have two goals for everyone across the board. For our seniors, the goal back when they’re freshmen is to come in and leave as better people when they came in and to leave the program better than they found it,” Lee said. “Our senior class undoubtedly did that. I came in last year with a pretty tough offseason and pretty high expectations, but they rose to those. In our offseason meetings, our returners talked about how they led by example on and off the field and how they were all there for them and really led in their own unique way.”
Behind that group, Lovejoy had lofty aspirations for its 2020 campaign — chief among them capturing the program’s first district championship in five years. Thanks to a non-district slate that dealt the Lady Leopards a myriad of game scripts, Lee and the team were optimistic heading into district play.
“I think we were really firing on all cylinders right at the time we should have been,” Lee said. “I think our preseason really gave us everything a coach could have hoped for. It gave us adversity, we were resilient in some games, had big comebacks and tough losses, but I feel like had we got to that district game on Tuesday that we would have been rolling at just the right time.”
Another reason behind that optimism came from the strides made by the Lady Leopards in just one year’s time. In 2019, Lovejoy was in what Lee called “Year Zero” under its new coach — a campaign devoted to laying a foundation for the program. The Lady Leopards still carved out a playoff berth after placing second in 10-5A, dropping a one-run ballgame to eventual regional finalist Frisco Reedy. Lee and Co. raised the bar for 2020.
“Across the board, from the top of varsity to the bottom of JV, we were going for a district championship to put on our signage in left field. That’s been the message since August,” Lee said. “We were laying the foundation back then, and when we went back and compared last year’s preseason to this year, every single one of our returners had improved in every statistic on just about the exact schedule.”
Leading that charge were Taylor and Mitchell, who were both named to DFW FastPitch’s All-Metroplex Seniors team and will continue their careers at the college level — Taylor at Tarleton State and Mitchell at North Central Texas College.
“They were lights out last year and kept improving. They both had [on-base percentages] of over .500 and couldn’t be kept off the bases,” Lee said. “Leah was lights out at shortstop and Mackenzie was the same in the outfield. There just wasn’t much that ever got by them.”
Those two helped set the tone for a team that sat at 12-9 prior to having its season cancelled. Notable verdicts within that stretch included a 13-10 win over Hendrickson that saw Lovejoy dig out of a 10-1 hole and a dramatic 7-6 victory over Plano East that was capped by a walk-off single from Mitchell.
“These seniors have worked so hard for this program and really felt like this was their chance to cap off all they’ve accomplished,” Lee said. “I think that was the hardest part for all of us — knowing we had a shot at getting that district championship and looking toward the playoffs.”
The Lady Leopards will regroup for next spring with the majority of their lineup intact, with players like juniors Holley Massey and Madeline Robinson — two fixtures in the heart of Lee’s batting order — to complement promising up-and-comers like freshmen Hannah Harvey, Jade Owens and Sydney Bardwell — all of whom started in their first years on varsity.
And there’s no question where those players will draw their motivation from.
“The positives we’ve taken from this as a program, the underclassmen have echoed our whole focus is on next year,” Lee said. “We always have a theme and our team’s theme next year is, ‘For the 2020 Seniors.’ For those kids to already say they’re dedicating what we do next year to those five people is really special.”