For Elmore County softball to reach the state tournament stage would have been unthinkable just two years ago.
The Panthers went a rough 13-26 in 2018, then closed their 2019 season with a 15-3 defeat against Northside after winning just one game in regional tournament play.
That’s a stark contrast with how Elmore County ended its 2021 campaign, going on an improbable run to secure the second and final state qualifying spot at the Tuscaloosa regional to reach state championship tournament play.
As such, the head coach who helped make such changes possible, Mark Segrest, has been named the 2021 Elmore County Coach of the Year by the Tallassee Tribune.
“Good players and good coaches make the head coach look good,” Segrest said. “I was blessed with both this year.”
Elmore County is a combined 59-18 since Segrest took over before the COVID-shortened 2020 season, including a 43-15 mark in 2021.
The Panthers made it as far in postseason play as any other team in the Elmore County area, with both them and Edgewood Academy winning their respective first-round state tournament games before being eliminated in the following two rounds.
Unlike the Wildcats who clinched their AISA state tournament bid by winning their area title, however, Elmore County had to survive as one of the final two teams in its eight-team, double-elimination regional tournament to make it to the AHSAA championships.
That task was made much harder when the Panthers lost their first game of the Tuscaloosa regional to Brewbaker Tech.
“In a situation like this, you just have to flush that last game,” Segrest said after the loss. “You can’t worry about whether you hit well or you didn’t hit well. You’ve just gotta clear your head and go up with the right approach at the plate because every game is a new game.”
Elmore County fought all the way back, winning four consecutive games in losers bracket play to qualify for state.
After a blowout of Sipsey Valley, junior pitcher Aubrey Allen delivered a shutout of Demopolis to push the Panthers through to the losers bracket semifinals. There Allen and senior pitcher Maci Curlee combined to stymie John Carroll Catholic’s offense, with Allen pitching two extra innings in a nine-inning, 3-1 victory for Elmore County.
The Panthers capped it off by taking revenge on Brewbaker Tech in walk-off fashion.
“I’ve been fortunate enough to be a part of a number of championship teams, and this one has a special place in my heart,” Segrest said after the victory. “Just for the simple fact that, the last two tournaments, we’ve gotten in the losers bracket and fought our way though. There’s just a lot of good, hard working kids on this team that bought into what we’re trying to do at Elmore County.”
Elmore County also fought back from the losers bracket in its area tournament to reach regionals in the first place.
To get the team to a place where it could compete in such postseason contests, Segrest and his staff established an environment of hard work and competition.
Clearly it paid dividends, with the Panthers reaching their first state tournament since 2014 and winning their first state tournament game since 2007, before the current state tournament format existed.
“It was creating a new culture,” Segrest said. “It was setting a new standard of how we wanted to practice every single day. We also wanted to improve our schedule, which we did.”
Segrest’s staff includes Elmore County athletic director Terry Nicholas, who helps with administrative work and coaches outfielders and former minor league baseball player Craig Vaught, who Segrest called an “outstanding” hitting coach.
They coach alongside Auburn University at Montgomery all-decade team member Kayla Hale, Elmore County’s pitching coach who took much of Segrest’s pitch-calling duties off his plate, and Haley Britt, who played collegiately at Shelton State and helps with hitting and first basemen.
“The thing I’m most proud of is that this coaching staff has put a great plan in throughout the season to develop the players,” Segrest said. “We have a number of players that are able to live out their dream and play at the next level, which, in my opinion, is the number one job of the coach is to help people achieve those goals.”
Instilling leadership within the team was an important piece as well, and Segrest said the team’s seniors did a tremendous job filling that role.
The Panthers lose four seniors from 2021 in Madison Britt, Maci Curlee, Kelley Green and Ebone Pierson, all key contributors to their run. They will return star pitcher Aubrey Allen and power-hitting third baseman Madelyn Becker, however, in 2022.
With those players, among others, in tow and Segrest and his staff at the helm, perhaps the team can make another run like it did this past season.