TAYLORSVILLE — Copper Hills softball coach Jentry Jo Johnson covered her face with a hand towel as she embraced her senior catcher on the field where the pair led the Grizzlies to their first state softball title.
The crowd around them cheered and clapped as they cried.
This was a moment made possible because a group of teenage girls chose to see in themselves what their coach convinced them they were capable of achieving in three short months together.
“I just tried to challenge them every single day, to tell them and show them that they could believe in themselves,” said Johnson after the Grizzlies beat Bingham 4-3 Thursday night to claim the school’s first softball title. “It’s been a journey. I had to convince them they’re capable of this everyday.”
It began — and ended — with the team’s three seniors.
Instead of feeling entitled, like some seniors are prone to do, the seniors on the Copper Hills softball team consistently put the team before themselves, even if that meant cheering their younger players on from the sideline.
Senior catcher Ashley Clayson gave up the position she’d played for three years to become the Grizzlies’ catcher.
“She’s going to be someone that I miss greatly,” said Johnson. “Moving positions behind the plate was almost one of the best things that I could have done because she commanded the field so well. Everything that I ever asked, she did — above and beyond even what I asked. It’s like we’ve had the same mind all season long, and she’s been the greatest leader that I could have asked for.”
The team relied on senior left fielder Dani Hamilton to start the offense each game.
“She set the pace to a lot of the last half of our games,” said Johnson. “She was one of my most consistent hitters all season long.”
And then there was senior pitcher Rashelle North.
Her last start came on senior day a few weeks ago. Since then, Johnson said she’s gone with her “gut” and started sophomore Payten Davies. The younger pitcher threw well for the Grizzlies, but before the start of Thursday’s championship game, Johnson told North, “We’re going to need you today.”
North said she never felt badly that Davies started over her in every playoff game.
“At this point, I just knew we had to do it for the team,” she said. “If Payten starting was best for the team, then that’s what was best. But when she said they were going to need me, I just knew I was getting my chance today.”
She got her chance in the third inning after Bingham took a 2-1 lead. Miner freshman Torre Glasker got on base when she was hit by a pitch, and then third baseman Shea Ibrahim got on base with a single. Catcher Chelsea Latu’s single allowed Glasker to score, followed by Taylor Clemens' single that scored Latu.
North came in and got the final out to end the inning.
“Rachelle is a senior and she’s wanted this so bad,” said Johnson. “I’ve gone with my gut for the last several games, and she’s stood in the wings waiting for her opportunity.”
She said she didn’t hesitate to make the change, and the other players said it didn’t rattle them at all.
“I knew (Rashelle) was ready to come in,” said Clayson. “She’s wanted this for four years now. I knew she’d step up and do her job. She knew we had her back on defense, and she just carried us the rest of the game.”
Copper Hills scored the game’s first run in the first inning when Skylar Cook scored on freshman Ashlee Anderson’s double. The Miners held the team scoreless until the fifth inning. Kierra Siddoway and Paige Watts both got on base with singles, and then with two outs, Cook was able to get on base because of a throwing error that allowed Siddoway to score. Watts and Cook scored when Anderson hit her second double of the game.
It looked like Bingham would come back when Paige Reimann hit a single to get on base and then Clemens followed with a single of her own. Emily Lewis ripped a double that scored courtesy runner Sara Bendt.
With the tying and winning runs on base, Johnson called a timeout.
“Calling a timeout, going out there, talking to them and telling them anything can happen, it’s not that big of a deal, we just need two outs and then having it be the next pitch and the next play, I couldn’t have written it any better,” said Johnson of the double play that followed that timeout. A line drive was caught by North, who said she did as she was trained to do and threw to second for a double play that ended the game.
“It’s surreal,” said Johnson of earning the first state title for Copper Hills’ softball program. “I can’t even describe it. Copper Hills is going to be a school to be reckoned with for a long time now.”
Clayson and North said the biggest difference between their sophomore year, when they didn’t make the state tournament, and their junior year, when they took second in the state, is Johnson. The former Hillcrest three-sport star is intense and exuberant, and she said she questioned her own methods a few times this season.
“Sometimes I did (think I pushed too hard),” she said. “I am an intense coach. You can see it on the sidelines. You can see I get upset. I show it on my face, and I verbalize it. And sometimes I’ve thought, 'Am I a little too hard on these girls?' And every time I think that, I think of a game just like this. If I’m easy on them all the time, it’s easy for them to back down. I knew because of my intensity, that they could handle that intense of a game.”
The Miners actually had more hits than the Grizzlies in earning a rematch with the team that sent them into the one-loss bracket Wednesday night. Bingham had to beat Lehi 7-6 in a 2:30 p.m. contest to earn the right to face Copper Hills again.
“You get beat like that the night before,” said Bingham coach Mikki Jackson, referring to the 15-0 loss Bingham suffered against Copper Hillls Wednesday, “you know, it shows there is heart inside of these guys to come back because they could have rolled over. They battled through some tough moments. I’m pleased with what they accomplished.”
Johnson said she knew Bingham would be back — stronger and tougher.
“I knew Bingham was hungry, and I knew they’d be ready,” said Johnson.
Seconds later she was doused in ice water, after which she lead the team, parents and student body in a cheer.
“Copper Hills!” she yelled with that same intensity. “How do you feel?”
And they responded, as she smiled, “We feel good! Oh, we feel so good.”
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