Submitted The Jefferson County High softball team won its first state title with a 3-0 victory over Siegel.

Submitted

The Jefferson County High softball team won its first state title with a 3-0 victory over Siegel.

MURFREESBORO -- While growing up playing sports, Hillary Howard Love had a lot of influences.

The Lafayette native fondly recalls those individuals.

"You go through all these phases when you're in high school and even younger," Love said. "Coaching is always something I wanted to do. Pat Summitt was my idol, and I wanted to be like her. In Macon County, seeing Coach (Gary) Carter, I never got to play under him, because I didn't play basketball. I was like, 'Man, I don't play basketball, but I admire him.' I looked up to him. Beverly Shoulders was somebody I looked up to because she was a tough competitor.

"I had a lot of role models in Macon County growing up. I had Coach (Mark) Shrum (the former Macon County High softball coach) my first two years. He took me as a freshman and rolled with me a lot. Coach (Roger) Blankenship was his assistant. Then, I had Coach (Jonathan) Bush. I definitely had good influences when I was in high school."

Love has been a good influence on young ladies in another county. She led the Jefferson County High softball program to its first state title recently.

"I don't know if it's something I can even describe," Love said. "There's a happiness. There's a satisfying. We have a slogan … don't be satisfied. At the end, it was feeling satisfied. It was all the hard work (culminating).

"In the summertime, when teams are sleeping in, we're working. All the fall workouts, all the hard work that's put in day in and day out, and it's coming to an end. Not many teams get to the end the year with a win. To end your year with a win like that is unimaginable. I was like, 'Wow, it really happens.'"

Love is in her 11th season at Jefferson County, her fifth season as the Lady Patriot head coach (after serving as the assistant coach under Rebekkah Massaro).

"It's something I definitely wanted, just because of the relationship I had built with the girls," Love said of becoming the head coach.

Massaro led the program to its third state appearance in 2010, placing fourth.

"In 2010, we made it to the state tournament," Love said. "We had a pretty good team. When we got there, we ran into Riverdale, Beech and Soddy (Soddy-Daisy). Those were powerhouses.

"I didn't know when we got there (this season) if we'd run into some teams like that."

Then, Love - who has also served as the Jefferson Middle School coach for the last five seasons - helped the program reach the sectional round in her first season as head coach (2015) before falling a win short of the state tournament.

"As coaches, you have to get the players bought in," Love said. "I don't think it hurt (the players' investment in the program). It also didn't hurt that I had really good ball players who were tough. They played how I asked them to play. At the same time, it's the make-up of the team and the work ethic they bring. They've set the standard for the following years … that we have to work and that hard work will pay off in the end."

The Lady Patriots returned to the sectional round last season, suffering a 3-0 loss to eventual state champion Powell.

That set the stage for this season's five-member senior class to take the program to the next level.

"This group of seniors are ones I've had since seventh grade," Love said. "You develop those relationships. You know there's going to be a last game, and boom, there it is.

"I only had one pitcher (Catelyn Riley), so I didn't do a lot of (weekend) tournaments. I didn't know a lot about some of the teams we were going to go against (at the state level). On Tuesday (before the state tournament), we left early from school. I wanted to take the girls up there (to the Starplex softball complex in Murfreesboro) so they could see where they're playing, see the conditions. I wanted them to get comfortable."

At first glance, Siegel stood out as a title contender.

"We were seeing Siegel play, and I knew they were probably going to be the team to beat," Love said. "Seeing them play, they were athletic, but I thought we could potentially see them. That win over Halls (a 3-1 victory in the team's state opener) is a big one. That first win lets you catch your breath and see, 'Oh yeah, we can do this.' Then, we scored 9 or 10 against Dyer County (in an 11-1 win), and that was big for the girls to have a game to where they didn't have such a mentally-tough game.

"Siegel, one through nine for them is athletic as all get out. We're not the most athletic team ever. We just have to work really hard. When we beat them that night (a 1-0 win in the winners bracket final), I knew we had a chance, because they'd have to beat us twice (in the championship round)."

Then, Jefferson County suffered a 10-1 loss to Siegel in Friday afternoon's first championship game.

"The first couple of days, you're just anticipating that first game," Love said. "We had two games Wednesday. That Wednesday was quick. Thursday, it was a blur in some ways looking back on it. Friday, in the championship game, I didn't think 3 o'clock was ever going to get here. We went that morning and hit for a couple of hours. We got back to the (hotel) room, ate and tried to keep them in a routine. The girls went down the lobby and were singing karaoke, trying to stay loose."

However, the Lady Patriots bounced back with a 3-1 victory over Siegel in Friday night's winner-take-all contest.

Jefferson County actually finished behind Morristown East during regular-season play in District 2-AAA and again in the 2-AAA Tournament.

"We had a pretty tough conference," Love said. "That first week of May, I was looking at our assistants and saying, I don't know if we're going to make it out of the conference. Then, just a few weeks later, we're going to the state tournament. It was a tough road.

"We had to go to Daniel Boone (a 3-2 win in the Region 1-AAA semifinal). We actually played them a week prior, but it took everything we had to beat them (a 7-5 contest). Then, we had Farragut come to our place (in a Class AAA sectional, a 1-0 win), and we had already gotten beat by them earlier in the year (a 3-1 loss). Our backs were definitely against the wall. Every time we were there, the girls came through. They were definitely resilient."

Love has been assisted by Whitney Leon and Brittany Templin.

"Those two girls have just really made my life so much easier as a head coach," Love said. "You're only as good as your assistants. They've helped this program so much."

Love played third base at Macon County High, graduating in 2002. She went on to play for two seasons at Volunteer State Community College, transitioning into a shortstop, and then concluded her playing career at Carson-Newman University. She also served as a graduate assistant for one season at Carson-Newman.

"At the time, I really wasn't sure what level I wanted to be at, but I knew coaching was definitely something I wanted to be rooted in," Love said. "I enjoy the competition, but I enjoy the sport. It was definitely a cool experience to be on the other side of things (as a coach instead of a player).

"Going to Vol State and seeing how Coach (Johnny) Lynn ran the program and how he was, that kind of showed me some things … I still talk about him. I'll call my mom and say, 'We had a good Johnny Lynn workout today.' That's where I grew as a player a lot. He pushed me. I played third base, and to have thought I would have played shortstop for two years for him, I would have never imagined that. To push these kids is something I enjoy. It's part of the coaching aspect."

Love has fond memories of her formative days as a softball player.

"I credit my mom (Jennifer Williams)," Love said. "I still remember playing behind Pizza Hut at those little ballfields there (in Lafayette). It's definitely a place that resonates in my heart. It always has been that way and always will be.

"Whenever we were playing our championship game, I looked up in the stands and there were countless people there … Kenny and Cathy Cothron - she was a teacher I had - Beverly and Rick (Shoulders) were there. My family was there. It was nice to be able to almost come home, just to be able to show off the team I have and how hard they've worked. That meant a lot to me. Macon County is definitely the foundation I won't ever forget. I can't even put into words how much it does mean to me … even just so many people making posts or comments. I appreciate their love and support from all of Macon County. I couldn't be more proud to call Macon my home. I may have moved away, but I still feel like that will always be home to me."

With Riley returning, the Lady Patriots will attempt to reload next season.

"To me, the expectation has been the same even when I came in as an assistant … to compete and be ready to go in the postseason," Love - who named her dog Macon - said. "Losing five seniors, we may have to rely on some underclassmen this coming year to get us there. I look at our coaching staff and say, 'What better coaching staff could I have by my side to help us get ready for that?'

"We are going to be returning some key players, like Makayla Alvey our shortstop and Catelyn Riley our pitcher. It's a matter of letting these underclassmen know the expectation early. You don't play for second."