Hardin reflects on stellar season for Lady Cyclones

By Jeff Birchfield
Going into the 2004 softball season, expectations for the Elizabethton High School girls' softball team were moderate at best with a squad comprised of younger players.
A final record of 22-20, including runner-up finishes in both District and Region 1-AA play, was especially pleasing to head coach Kenny Hardin.
"I knew we had quite a bit of young talent and that we could play," said Hardin. "I just didn't know if they would come together or not.
"Overall, defensively we played better at the end of the year. I would have to look at that improvement as what helped most at the end of the season."
That improvement almost parlayed into a trip to the state tournament. The Lady Cyclones came up only one game short of a Memphis journey with a loss to powerful Lenoir City in the sectional round.
While the team was stong in many aspects, one area in particular was the pitching led by Jessica Robinson and Mary Edgar.
"Jessica pitched two fantastic games at the end of the season," said Hardin. "All the pitchers stayed after practice. The group pushes themselves pretty well. The way they push themselves with their work ethic, they could have a better season next year."
While many players like Katie Hubbard, Abbie Jenkins, Valerie Kauffield, Tia Nave, Lana Blevins, Maggie Austin, Kristie Keys, Britney Smith, Whitney Lyons and Sarah Ruston all contributed heavily to the season, it was not individuals that Hardin was interested in recognizing.
"The whole team stood out, the way they played together as a team," said Hardin, who was assisted by Aimee Richardson. "We had several people who had a great year, but it wasn't about individuals. The team aspect is the most important part of the game."
It was the inagurual season for Hardin at the helm, but he took a common sense approach that even veteran coaches could appreciate.
"This was my first year and I tried to get back to the basics, make sure the game was fun," said Hardin. "If it is fun, then the kids will play harder for you. I feel the program has come a long way. People talked about the team all over town. That makes me and the girls feel good."
"I really enjoyed it. A few things surprised me, but basically kids are kids."
What specifically caught Hardin off guard was the resolve of his team.
"Just the work ethic of the girls and how tough they were," Hardin commented on his biggest surprises. "The girls would play through injuries, play through about anything. If they were hurt they would still be out there practicing."
Did he know the team could be so good after finishing 10-15 the 2003 season?
"After a couple of months of practice and watching them play some last year, I knew their abilities," said Hardin. "I play the game a lot by heart. If I feel something, I would go with it. I might not have bunted in some situations when maybe I should have."
The coach deserves credit for making some unconventional moves during the courses of the games.
"We did some things differently," admitted Hardin. "We might swing at a 3 and 0 situation. It helped the girls build confidence in themselves. I feel like it's a hitter's game, you are not up there to walk. With the way pitching is around here, there aren't too many walks in a game and you better put the ball in play when you can.
"You can't stand there and get in an 0 and 2 hole, and stay behind the rest of the count."
No game better exemplified the effort of the Lady Cyclone team than a 3-0 win over rival Happy Valley in the District 1-AA semifinals.
"It was a big upset over Happy Valley," said Hardin. "They had four or five seniors compared to only one for us."
The success brought a level of enthusiasm to the games not seen in recent years.
"I appreciate all the fan support, the support of the school and the parents," said Hardin. "I most liked the way the girls worked together this year. They set a standard to live up to.
"I hope we can play just as hard and not let anybody down next year."