Capturing the first state softball championship in school history, the Sterlington Lady Panthers defeated South Cameron 6-2 in the 2003 Class 1A state championship game.
Commemorating the 10th anniversary of the 2003 state championship season, the Sterlington Lady Panthers recognized seven very special guests prior to Monday's softball game against Jonesboro-Hodge.
Members of the state championship team attending the brief ceremony were pitcher Britni Bowen Hamby, second baseman Magen Auger Keys, shortstop Kendal Bardin Kimbell, left fielder Connie Long Merritt, reserves Brooke Bowen Thomas and Shannon Darmstaedter Powell and coach Boyd Cole.
Following the ceremony, the group posed for a picture with the state championship trophy. All six were both shocked and delighted when coach Cole handed them their blue jersey from the 2003 season.
Sterlington was seriously challenged only once in the playoffs throughout its postseason march to the state championship. In the first round, the Lady Panthers shutout St. Mary's 10-0, then took care of St. Edmund 8-1 in the regional round. Moving on the State Tournament in Sulphur, the Lady Panthers beat Block 10-1 in the quarterfinals, edged Catholic of Pointe Coupee 2-0 in the semifinals and disposed of South Cameron 6-2 in the finals.
Naturally, the 2003 Lady Panthers have gone their separate ways, moving on to careers, some raising families and others moving out of the area. However, many of the Lady Panthers still keep in touch.
“What I miss the most about playing softball is being with my teammates,” said Britni Bowen Hamby, Louisiana's 2003 Miss Softball. “There is definitely a special bond there, especially between the six seniors. We still stay in touch, but you don't get to see everyone as often as you would like with everybody working.”
Seniors on the championship team were Magen Auger, Britni Bowen, Tara Holloway, Kendal Bardin, Tara Holloway and Natalie Saunders.
The starting lineup had Britni Bowen in the circle, Morgan Gates catching, Ashton Brown at first base, Magen Auger at second base, Tara Holloway at third base, Kendal Bardin at shortstop, Connie Long in left field, Natalie Saunders in center field and Mandy Fillingame in right.
Britni Bowen Hamby, who still resides in Sterlington, has continued to follow the Lady Panthers as three younger sisters have come through the program. Brieann Bowen played for the junior varsity this season.
For Britni Bowen, the 2003 state championship game marked the end of her competitive career. Appropriately, Bowen punctuated her distinguished career by striking out the final batter to clinch the state title.
“We played hard as a team every game — that's what made the year so special,” she recalled. “We had been to the State Tournament every year except 2002, so it was a lot of fun. Not many people get to win their last game and go out on top.”
Kendal Bardin Kimbell remembers Bowen's final pitch vividly.
“I'll never forget the last out of the championship game, Britni striking somebody out,” Kendal said.
Like Bowen Hamby, Bardin Kimbell wishes the team could have more reunions.
“We still get together every so often, but not as often as we would like,” said Bardin Kimbell, who resides in Farmerville. “I talk to Natalie (Saunders Wise) a lot. She lives in Bossier now.”
Monday was the first time that Bardin Kimbell had returned to Panther Park as a spectator.
“I watch college softball games when they're on TV, but I haven't been to a softball game since I graduated,” she said. “I do miss it terribly, though. I'm always speaking softball terminology to my little girl (2-year-old Tylar).”
Bardin Kimbell continued to play softball for several years after graduation.
“I played co-ed ball until I got hit in the face and realized my playing days were over,” she laughed.
For the Lady Panthers, the state championship was the crown jewel of their long careers.
“We started playing ball together in kindergarden and played tournament ball every summer,” Bardin Kimbell said.
Besides winning the 2003 state championship, the Lady Panthers finished as the state runner-up to Menard in 2001. While Sterlington enjoyed a glorious run in the early 2000s, there was one major pitfall — a 3-2 home field loss to Cedar Creek in the 2002 playoffs, which left the Lady Panthers at home for the State Tournament.
“Menard beat us 6-2 in the (2001) finals and lost their pitcher, so I felt pretty good about our chances that year,” Cole recalled. “But Cedar Creek came here and beat us 3-2 and we didn't even make it to the (State) Tournament. They scored all three runs and had six outs that inning. But you can't blame the umpires because we didn't hit the ball.”
It would be safe to say that it was the most painful loss in Cole's 17 years as the Lady Panthers' head coach.
“I didn't leave the dugout for six hours after the game,” Cole said.
Turning a negative into a positive, the Lady Panthers used the gut-wrenching loss as a source of motivation the following spring.
“They made up their minds that they weren't going to let that happen again. Every time we were having a bad practice, I would remind them of the feeling we all had after the Cedar Creek game,” Cole said. “They worked hard in the offseason that year. We only had two girls on that team that played anything besides softball, so softball was their focus.”
Cole says the 2003 Lady Panthers had two special traits — a unique team chemistry and a tireless work ethic.
“They all liked each other and got along together,” said Cole, who also coached the summer team back then. “Of our nine starters, seven or eight played summer ball. Out of that entire ballclub, we had one missed practice the entire season.”
No story on the Lady Panthers' championship season would be complete without mentioning their practice attire. It seems that the Lady Panthers were having problems wearing the proper shirts to practice, creating miss-match uniforms. Cole said Monday that Bardin Kimbell was the main reason he instituted a practice dress code. Bardin Kimbell disputed Cole's claim, though half-heartedly.
Anyway, Cole solved the problem by distributing six different practice shirts to every player on the team. Each player received a shirt with a Lady Panthers' softball logo on the front and the day of the week screen printed on the back (one for each day, excluding Sunday).
On a more serious note, the Lady Panthers got off to a slow start in the State Tournament, falling behind Block early in the Friday night quarterfinals.
“Block went ahead of us 1-0 in the top of the first and had the bases loaded (with nobody out),” Cole said. “I was panicking. I went out to the mound and talked to Britni and she had that look in her eyes. After I went back to the dugout, she struck out the side.
“In the bottom of the first, we got two quick outs and I'm thinking, 'Maybe this isn't going to be as much fun as I thought it was going to be.' Then we hit three straight doubles.”
Advancing to the finals with a hard-fought 2-0 victory over Catholic Pointe Coupee in Saturday's early game, the Lady Panthers were paired against the South Cameron Lady Tarpons in Saturday night's championship encounter.
Cole's confidence soared as the Lady Panthers built a 3-0 lead.
“Somebody asked me why I was smiling so much in the South Cameron game,” Cole said. “My answer was because Britni hadn't given up over 2 runs in a game all year and we were up 3-0.
“Britni was untouchable in the playoffs that year.”
Actually, it was more like all year.
“She gave up one earned run to a Class A school all year,” Cole said. One out away from the state championship, Bowen wasn't going to be denied.
“South Cameron's pitcher always smiled after she struck somebody out and she came up with two outs in the seventh inning,” Cole said. “Britni told me, 'I'm going to wipe that smile off of her face.'
The last pitch of Britni's career was probably in the 60s. (The batter) never saw it.”
Sterlington had won its first state softball championship and is still seeking its second.
The 2003 Lady Panthers want their kids to have the same experience.
“We're already planning on living in the same town and our kids playing together,” Bardin Kimbell said with a smile.