What was supposed to be the driving force behind the 2020 McCracken County softball team? Revenge? Anger? Frustration?

Let’s try “focus.” Let’s try “chemistry.”

After all, since the program’s inception in 2014, the Lady Mustangs have gone a robust 195-51 with four First Region titles, one state championship and just three defeats to First Region squads. Hardly anything worth scoffing about.

Two of those losses, however, came last year. The first: a regular-season, extra-inning defeat to Hickman County. The second: a 10-0 bludgeoning from Graves County in the 2019 First Region semifinals.

It’d be easy — almost expected — for revenge, anger and frustration to be catalysts and motivators for preseason workouts and routines.

But they weren’t. And they still aren’t, as the season stays on hold due to the KHSAA mandate suspending play past April 12 for “social distancing” purposes in the fight against COVID-19.

“This year, we were more focused,” noted senior utility star Emma Ballard. “We do a lot of traveling. We play teams that aren’t in this region. And we’ve been like: ‘we need to buckle in and focus on just winning in our region. And focus on beating anybody that we can. Doesn’t matter who the team is. We lost to Ballard County (in the 2018 semifinals), and we didn’t look at them as competition. But they were, and they ended up going for a win. And they completely deserved that.

“I think we were just focused on beating anybody we could (this season), and as bad as we could.”

Ballard — a lifetime .312 hitter with 94 games, 70 runs scored, 12 doubles, four triples and two home runs in a Lady Mustangs uniform — is one of six seniors who might’ve played the final game for their school, before the season even began.

She’s also one of six seniors who had “bought in,” as longtime coach Tony Hayden put it, on what was supposed to happen this year. Bought in on the chemistry of what it means to make the roster. Bought in on team development. Bought in on just going out and winning, like this team had done so effectively, so ruthlessly — particularly from 2014-17.

“Last week, I sent all of my seniors an email, and I told them that I ‘hadn’t been this happy in two years’ with the leadership we were getting from our senior group,” Hayden said. “Mary (Beavers) had been showing her face every now and then (around basketball), but the others (Ballard, Alli Douglas, Mahailee Parker, Madelyn Conley and Macy Bynum) were there every day since Jan. 2.

“The morale, the team chemistry, the being-all-in to what we — as coaches — were trying to do and situations we were trying to put them in ... it was all going great.

“You might’ve known something was going to friggin’-happen, because everything was going great. And it’s tough on them, whether they play another game at McCracken County High School or not.”

Individually, several McCracken players are either working through non-team-affiliated pitching coaches or hitting instructors, marching through Parisi Speed School, or just playing catch in the backyard.

But it’s clearly not the same. Hayden and his staff can’t be on school premises, nor have physical contact with the team. And, in fact, he hasn’t deleted his team’s games after the April 12 deadline currently in place by KHSAA officials, with the Lady Mustangs scheduled for a daunting stretch right out of the new gate: Christian County on April 13, Marshall County on April 14, and Graves County on April 16.

Slight hope? Slight hope.

“Slim chance,” he said. “A very slim chance.”

A college staff?One of the bigger storylines coming into 2020 for the Lady Mustangs — aside from the continued development of sophomore First Region preseason Player of the Year Ariel Fox — would’ve been how Hayden and his coaching staff handled the circle.

Everyone who threw a pitch last season, save senior Natalie Lang (injury) — Parker, freshman Rhea-Lee Joiner, freshman Ally Hutchins, junior Abigayle Duren and junior Ashby Murt — was set to return in some form or fashion in the circle if called upon, with others on deck. Starters. Relievers. Closers.

A true pitching staff, Hayden said.

“Our pitching staff is like what a lot of colleges are going to right now,” he added. “And that was looking really good in the scrimmage games we had.”

Wiffleball futures?Ballard was originally committed to the University of Transylvania for softball before realizing she’s ready to “just be a student,” leaving Douglas (John A. Logan) as McCracken’s only senior with a clear path to more organized softball.

“I was looking forward to my senior season being it,” Ballard added.

But it might not be the end of the diamond yet for her. Not if she and the rest of the seniors have their way.

“We have actually planned a wiffleball game,” she said. “We’re just trying to find a time that everybody can get together. One of my senior friends, Mary (Beavers), she has a big yard. And she said she could set up wiffleball, and it’d be fun. We could still kind of somewhat play the sport we all love, so we’re trying to stay in contact that way, and just trying to find a time we can all do that.”

Follow Marlowe on Twitter @dreamarlowe85, call him (270) 575-8661, or email him at emarlowe@paducahsun.com.

Follow Marlowe on Twitter @dreamarlowe85, call him (270) 575-8661, or email him at emarlowe@paducahsun.com.

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