Four years ago, they were wide-eyed freshmen feeling no pressure as the Nashville Hornettes rolled to the school’s second state softball championship.
Flash forward to 2015 and the current crop of soon-to-be graduates has helped compile a remarkable 136-14 record that included a 29-0 start this season.
“Looking back on it now, it’s crazy,” senior center fielder Emily Thompson said about winning a state title in her freshman year. “Being freshmen, we didn’t really understand the publicity of it and didn’t let anything get to our heads. It was such a huge accomplishment and something we’ll be able to take with us forever.”
Welcome to Nashville softball, where winning never ends and talented players keep finding their way onto the roster. The current squad began the season with 29 straight wins before losing a pair of one-run games to to River-to-River Conference rival Carterville in extra innings on Thursday.
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Thompson and senior teammates Maci Ingram and Jordi Harre have been playing together since they were 10 years old.
The Hornettes would like to add another Class 2A state title before they turn in their uniforms and the possibility is there. The current seniors have never won fewer than 35 games in a season, winning a state championship in 2012 and finishing third in 2013.
“They’ve had a pretty remarkable run,” Nashville coach Dempsey Witte said of a senior group that includes catcher Daley Buchanan. “Some of these younger ones have seen the success the older ones have had and they dream about being the next ones out there. Everybody wants to keep the tradition going and fortunately we’ve been able to do that.”
Thompson will never forget the huge crowd and fans surrounding the Nashville softball field when the Hornettes beat Marquette and current Mississippi State ace pitcher Alexis Silkwood 3-1 in the super-sectional to reach the 2012 state tourney.
Senior second baseman Harre said the transition to varsity was difficult at first.
“We were all really nervous and didn’t know what to expect,” she said. “The upperclassmen were really good and we didn’t want to let them down. It was just awesome.”
Since 1999, Nashville has two state titles (2001 and 2012), finished third in 2004 and 2013, fourth in 1999 and made another state tourney trip in 2005.
They have done it with five different head coaches, winning state under current Nashville baseball coach Chad Malawy as well as Witte. The lone constants have been longtime pitching coach Wayne Harre, who has been calling pitches since 1999 ,and former head coach and current assistant Charlie Heck.
Four-year starting pitcher Ingram is 23-2 with an 0.70 ERA this spring. She has struck out 305 of the 575 batters she has faced over 161 innings and during her career is 98-11 with 1,297 strikeouts.
“By the end of the games I can never really feel my catching hand because my hand’s numb,” Nashville senior catcher Daley Buchanan said.
An injury to then-starting pitcher Shaye Harre during Ingram’s freshman year led to Ingram becoming the full-time pitcher. The Hornettes played well behind her and won a state title.
“That was unbelievable,” Ingram said. “It was a little intimidating too, since I was just a little freshman, but it was an incredible experience.”
Headed to McKendree University, Ingram came late to pitching after trying other positions and not being happy there. She and father Randy Ingram talked to others about pitching and then headed for the backyard.
“They told us to go out in the backyard and throw 100 pitches every day,” Ingram said. “ It took about nine months before I was finally ready to pitch in my first game.”
Ingram eventually joined a travel team, got pitching lessons and the rest is history. She had offers from McKendree and Illinois and interest from Southern Illinois University Carbondale before deciding on McKendree.
“She’s one of the fastest pitchers that I’ve ever seen and she has great movement on her pitches,” Jordi Harre said. “Her rise ball is awesome and usually people don’t touch it.”
Setting the bar high
Nashville’s run of success since ’99 includes seven Division I college players and a Division II national champion led by the town’s most famous player, former all-state pitcher Amy Harre. Besides helping Nashville to the 2001 state title and a school-record 41 victories in 2001, Harre later starred at SIUC and is a member of the Saluki Sports Hall of Fame.
She also was the first overall draft pick in 2005 by the Chicago Bandits in the National Pro Fastpitch league.
“Everybody who was in Nashville in any sport knew who Amy Harre was,” Ingram said.
Other Division I players from Nashville during that era include Kristin Schnake (Georgia; also played professionally), Jenny Doehring, Krystal Stein and Shaye Harre (SIUC), Alli Borowiak and Nicole Deering (Southeast Missouri) and Shana Richard (St. Louis University). Mallory Ruggles played on SIU Edwardsville’s Division II national championship team before the Cougars made the move to Division I.
“For a small school like us it’s really unheard of to have as many Division I players as we’ve had,” Wayne Harre said. “Softball’s all about pitching and we’ve pretty much had a good pitcher since Amy’s been here.”
Amy Harre is the niece of Wayne Harre and cousin of current senior star second baseman Jordi Harre.
“Jordi and I were always going to watch her play and Amy was just a phenomenal,” Thompson said. “I remember the first time meeting her I asked for her autograph, because I thought it was so cool. That’s motivation for us as players, too.
“The motivation just keeps running from generation to generation and it keeps going.”
Going out on top
Nashville’s current seniors include Ingram, Jordi Harre (.522, 20 RBIs, 50 stolen bases, 48 runs, .528 on-base percentage), Thompson (.429, six homers, 46 RBIs) and senior catcher Daley Buchanan (.379, 12 RBIs).
Witte, who has coached basketball alongside Wayne Harre for 12 seasons, said Nashville has always encouraged multi-sport athletes.
“You have to be able to share players, especially at schools our size,” he said. “Some of our best softball players through the years have played basketball and volleyball as well. I don’t think the kids feel pressured to go one way or the other. They’re open with the coaches and everybody’s pulling for everybody to win.”
During the 29-game winning streak, the Hornets never looked any further ahead than the next game. After all, the team had lost six seniors to graduation and would be starting several freshmen.
“The freshmen have done such an awesome job,” Thompson said. “They’ve stepped up and don’t let the pressure get to them. They deserve a lot of credit and have have fit in perfectly.”
But it also helps having four seniors, including three four-year starters led by Ingram.
“I think her control’s the best thing about her,” Witte said. “She hits her spots and can throw a variety of pitches.”
Harre ignites the offense from the leadoff spot with her speed and is solid defensively.
“Jordi brings a lot to her team,” Witte said. “She has very good speed and we can do so much with her when she gets on. Defensively she’s made some very big plays here and you could go back through her career and see so many of them. She makes the routine plays and then goes on to make extraordinary plays, too.”
Thompson adds a power bat to the lineup and strong defense in center.
“She has incredible range out in center and she’s got an excellent arm,” Witte said. “She’s one of those unique players that can hit a home run and then also bunt for a hit, so that makes her tough to defend.”
Nashville hit a combined 88 home runs the past two seasons, but Witte said this team is built more on speed and contact.
“We’re not going to hit the ball out as much, but we just want to avoid the strikeoutsand put the ball in play,” he said.
Earlier this season, the Hornettes lost Buchanan to injury when she took a foul tip off her mask and suffered a scary concussion injury. Buchanan has followed the required concussion protocol and hopes to return to action next week and potentially be catching again within two weeks.
“I don’t remember any of it,” she said. “All I remember is Coach Harre saying one thing and after that I don’t remember. I was out for like 11 minutes and not breathing. I got a new helmet and everything and it’s supposed to be concussion-proof. Hopefully it works.”