For Jefferson County softball coach Hillary Love, 2019 will be a tough year to beat. The coach led the Lady Patriots to their first Class AAA state softball championship in school history and Wednesday she was named the Tennessee Secondary School Athletic Association softball Coach of the Year.
Oh, and on Sep. 25 she became a mother as she and husband Ben welcomed baby girl Haddie Belle Love into the world.
“It’s been a lot of fun, to be able to win a state championship and for Ben and I to start our own family and become a mom,” Love said. “It’s almost unbelievable how God has really blessed us.”
Love found out she’d been picked for the TSSAA coach of the year honor Wednesday. She’ll join coaches from Alabama, Georgia, Florida, Mississippi, North Carolina, South Carolina and Louisiana as nominees for the Section 3 Coach of the Year award and then on for consideration for the National Federation of High School Associations as the National Coach of the Year.
The award brought back memories of a 2019 Jefferson County season for the ages.
“This has all been something I’ll carry with me forever,” Love said. “Anytime you can go back and reflect on the run that we had. I think of that day, winning it and coming back from adversity. The girls fighting back and the character of that team, it means a lot.”
And it might mean more because the Lady Patriots had gotten so close in the past, only to be denied. In Love’s first season in charge after years as a Jeff County assistant, she took the team all the way to the state sectional, losing 4-2 to Bearden in 2015. It’s a game that haunts her even now.
“As a coach, you take the blame a little bit when you can’t seem to get over the hump,” Love said. “My first year coaching, we made it to substate and got put out by Bearden. We had the lead and in the late innings they stung together a few hits. You look back at that loss and think about what you could have done differently.”
They returned to the Class AAA state sectional in 2018, only to lose 3-0 to Powell. But it was that loss that Love feels was the catalyst to her team’s 2019 success.
“We had been to substate twice, and we just couldn’t seem to find the big hit when we needed it,” Love said. “We couldn’t get momentum. This time we were able to do it. It speaks volume of our experience. These girls had gotten beat by Powell on their home field (the year before in the state sectional). It was all about not settling. We wanted to be the team that did this.”
The Lady Pats settled for nothing in 2019, compiling a 26-11 record and, after falling in the District 2-AAA final to Morristown East 10-2, bounced back to win six straight in the Region 1-AAA, state sectional and Class AAA playoffs in Murfreesboro.
That sectional game had been a roadblock for so long, but Jefferson County took out a 34-9 Farragut squad 1-0 to get over that seemingly insurmountable hurdle.
“For us to beat a Farragut team that was very good and had beat us earlier in the year, it was huge,” Love said. “I think they out-hit us, but they couldn’t get the big run across. It was every inning it seemed like they had bases loaded. But (Pitcher) Caitlyn (Riley) stepped up and she put a stop to them.”
With the Lady Admirals in the rearview, Jefferson County beat Knox Halls, Dyer County and Siegel to earn a spot in the tournament’s championship game as the only team to not drop a contest. That would change in the rematch with Siegel, who won the first game 10-1, setting up a winner-take-all final showdown later that same day on May 24.
It was the kind of beating that a lesser team would let spell disaster in the rubber match. Instead, Jeff County shut out the Lady Stars 3-0 to hoist the state title trophy.
“We didn’t show up in that first game and to be able to turn it around like that, it speaks a lot of those kids,” Love said. “We came back with a chip on our shoulder.”
They’ll have to find a way to keep it, but they’ll still have their coach to guide them. Though she’s a new mom, Love will coach the Lady Patriots again for the 2020 season.
“The husband and I are going to try it one more year and see how it goes,” Love said. “We’ll evaluate it at the end of the year.”
She might have her work cut out for her. Love graduated five starters and while Riley, along with star shortstop Makayla Alvey, return, nearly half the team will be untested as they try to defend their title.
“It feels like we’re starting from scratch,” Love said. “It’s going to be hard. We’ve always tried to hold them to a higher standard and get them ready mentally for the task ahead. Now it’s even bigger. They’re going to have a bullseye on their back.