A car accident set the wheels in motion.
“That next night (after the accident) I said, ‘Coach, I don’t care if I ride the bench, I just want to be out there with y’all,’” Hilari Hopkins recalls.
A long, wooden stick served as the inspiration.
“It started out as a stick they found and kind of grew into our symbol of what we were all about,” Dothan High softball coach Patricia Ball said.
A multi-talented group of softball players bonded like never before.
“We knew each other in and out,” Kasey Cooper said. “We trusted each other. “
It proved to be the right ingredients for the first and only state championship for a Dothan High Tigers female team. The 2011 softball team would also be the last team in any sport to win a state title for the former Dothan High as its final graduation ceremony was held Wednesday night before consolidation with Northview creates the new Dothan High Wolves.
“We played like no other team I’ve ever been a part of,” Cooper said. “We were going to find a way to win and have fun in the process.”
It was the seventh state championship team in school history, joining the 1978 baseball team, the 1954 basketball team, the 1953 track & field team and golf teams from 1955, 1959 and 1965.
A near tragedy would kickstart the building process of what would be a season for the ages.
Hopkins, a star shortstop, and several other players had decided not to play softball their senior season after the disappointment of finishing runner-up in the 2010 Class 6A state tournament.
“I think we wanted kind of a normal life without ball – just go to school, be able to do stuff after school, just kind of take a break,” Hopkins said of her senior year.
That mindset changed after Hopkins and three others were involved in a car accident after arriving back in town following a Dothan High basketball game at Enterprise on Feb. 11, 2011.
“Someone pulled out in front of us and we T-boned them,” Hopkins said.
The three passengers with Hopkins, who was driving, were injured. Two were current members of the softball team and Hopkins and another had decided not to play.
“We were going to my house to have a sleep over and next thing I know I’m in the ER looking at all three of my friends, thinking, ‘Oh no, what have I done now,’” Hopkins remembers.
Thankfully, the injuries weren’t serious. The car was totaled.
For Hopkins, it was a wake-up call in realizing she wanted to be back with her softball family.
“It was like, you never know when it’s going to be your last day and that’s my family and that’s who I want to be with,” Hopkins said. “I want to hang out with them, I want to play ball with them, sit the bench with them – whatever I have to do – but that’s who I want to be with.”
With the season only a couple of weeks away, Hopkins and the others who wanted to return to the team had to first be welcomed back.
“I remember coach taking a few of the girls out to dinner and asking their opinion. I was one of them,” Cooper said. “We said, ‘If they want to come back, we really respect that, but we want them to earn it.’
“They earned their way back and it was just a moment of unity in saying we all want this together, we’re going to play as a team, we’re going to play as a unit and we’re just going to have fun.”
Ball said from that point on it became about more than winning ball games.
“They just brought that sense of unity and how precious life is to that team and it changed our whole season,” Ball said.
The team got off to a rocky start during an early-season tournament in Daphne. A piece of wood found in an empty lot near a restaurant following a few losses would change the course of the season.
“I remember coach Ball, who was not a yeller by any means, got on the bus and kind of let us have it,” Hopkins said. “We were just kind of, ‘Whoa, what just happened?’”
After dinner, Hopkins said teammate Emily Robinson found a long, cane-like stick near a dirt mound on a vacant lot next to the restaurant.
“Emily finds this stick and we go plant it on top of that mound,” Hopkins said. “And then the next thing I know, Emily has this big black garbage bag over her head walking around (with the stick) and she just comes around the corner of the bus and she looks up at us and starts laughing and we start laughing.”
The souvenir stick would make it on the bus with the team and would be placed in the dugout during each game to follow.
They called it the John Stick, referring to the Bible verse John 41:6 - “I am the way and the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.”
“Every single win we had after that we wrapped athletic tape around it and put the opponent and what the score was,” Cooper said. “By the end of state, it was a perfect fit. There was one more place left.” The team got on a roll after the tournament.
“Early on we hit a couple of rough spots, but as the season got going, that John Stick started to grow,” Ball said. “It was all about fortitude and overcoming emotional and mental challenges. That’s what that John Stick represented.
“Toward the end, I had just a real sense this is God inspired. I had a real sense of calmness. When we got ready to play the area tournament, I asked them, ‘Can you win 10 games?’ And they were like, ‘Of course we can win 10 games, because we had won a lot.’
“I said, ‘Well, if you win 10 games, you’re the state champion.’ And they said, ‘OK, we’ve got it.’”
After winning the regional tournament and advancing to the state tourney in Montgomery, Dothan beat Tuscaloosa County (4-0), Fairhope (5-0) and Hoover (2-0) in nine innings to reach the championship round. The Tigers would see Hoover again, as the Bucs blanked Fairhope 3-0 in the loser’s bracket to earn another shot at Dothan.
Cooper, a gritty sophomore pitcher on the team, developed blisters on her throwing hand during the tournament. Nothing, however, was going to stop her or the Tigers.
“We had beaten Hoover to get to the championship,” Cooper said. “Then the first game (8-2 loss in rematch against Hoover), anything that could possibly go wrong, went wrong. We really just got schooled.
“We went out to the left field line and coach Ball looked at everybody and said, ‘Figure it out.’ We looked at each other, and we were like, ‘Guys come on. We can do this.’ We’re just going to leave that game where it was. We can’t do anything about it. Let’s just go and win a state championship.
“We remembered how second place felt and we didn’t want to have that feeling again – seeing people celebrate in front of you when your season just came to an end. Being the last loser in state – nobody wanted that.”
Dothan made sure history wouldn’t repeat itself. Cooper hit the first pitch of the game out of the park. She then took to the circle and did the job there in earning MVP honors during an 8-2 victory.
“I remember the last inning with two outs we called a timeout,” Cooper said. “We said, ‘Let’s enjoy this moment before we win a state championship.’ It was a cool moment.”
The Tigers wrapped up the victory when Crystal Anderson fielded a grounder at third and threw across to record the final out.
“Yeah, that was big for me,” Ball said. “Just the purpose we played for was bigger than softball. That team was just inspired by things off the field.”
When the bus pulled into the Dothan High parking lot late into the night, the celebration continued.
“It was so awesome,” Cooper said. “It was kind of like we didn’t know we had that much support until we won.”
Cooper went on to become an All-American at Auburn University and a member of Team USA. Nothing, however, quite compares to what she experienced on that Dothan High championship team.
“To this day, that was probably my favorite team to play on because of the unity and how we truly cared for one another outside of the softball field,” Cooper said.
Hopkins, who now works in the emergency room of a Panama City hospital, thinks back on the team often.
“I’d still take a bullet for any of those girls,” Hopkins said. “I can’t thank all of them – or coach Ball enough – for all they have done for me.”