By Wil Crews
Opelika High School’s softball program has a new face. Jessica Thornton, originally from Vancouver, Washington, was announced as the Lady Bulldog’s new coach last week through a press release from the high school.
“We are extremely excited to welcome coach Thornton to Opelika as our new head softball coach,” stated Dr. Farrell Seymore, OHS Principal. “We look forward to coach Thornton contributing to the rich tradition at OHS. Her expertise and student-centered approach to teaching and coaching will help our students for years to come.”
Thornton most recently served as assistant softball coach at the University of Louisiana Monroe from 2015-21. While being an assistant coach had many positives, Thornton said she has been waiting for an opportunity like the one at Opelika.
“I think coaching is something that I have always wanted to do since I was little. Honestly it was just a dream.”
Thornton, who said she was the one who reached out to the school about the opening, was initially attracted to the job because of Opelika’s track record for excellence when it comes to athletics.
“My husband is from a small town in Alabama on the outskirts of Alex City,” she said. “So, I was familiar with the area and I’ve heard great things about Opelika athletics. I can’t pretend that I knew a lot about their softball program, but I know they have a rich culture over there and a lot of tradition, and I think that’s kind of what I’m built on and that’s what drew me there.”
Furthermore, Thornton said she isn’t worried about the transition from coaching college-age players to high school. If anything, it gives her an edge.
“I think there’s a lot of angles that it brings,” Thornton said. “I spent a lot time recruiting and coaching camps, so I’m not new to the age group. While I might not have been exposed as often, I am no newcomer. I think there’s a lot of potential there at Opelika specifically.”
Thornton’s softball pedigree dates back to playing for Mt. Hood Community College in Oregon. There, she was named Southern Region Player of the Year and helped lead MHCC to a combined 69-18 record, back-to-back NWAAC titles and the Southern Region Title. Thornton was named to the Louisville Slugger NFCA NWAACC All-American Team and was the MHCC Female Athlete of the Year in 2011. She finished her college playing career at Jacksonville State where she earned two degrees.
“My junior college coach actually played for coach McGinnis, who is at Jacksonville State and has been for 25 years. She had that connection and told coach McGinnis about me and that’s how I got there.”
For some, the adjustment of moving across of the country would be a shock – but Thornton quickly fell in love Alabama.
“There’s something to be said about warm weather and southern hospitality,” she said. “Sometimes I think you kind of want to turn the heat off – or at least down – but once you go back and feel how cold it might be other places, I think you appreciate it more. I love it.”
Thornton said she is going to be living in Louisiana for a couple more weeks, but is excited for the move to Lee County.
“I am eager to get back there so that I can meet them and start building those relationships.”
Once here, Thornton said her approach to coaching will be focused on “person over player”.
“What that means is I will always care about them more as a person than a player,” she said. “We are there to play softball and have fun and get better, but I want them to leave the program as better people. I want to help them learn and grow and reach their goals, whether it’s on the field or off the field.”
Lastly, Thornton said she wanted to thank Seymore and Opelika Athletic Director, Mike Pugh, for the opportunity, and expressed her drive to get the Opelika community’s support behind her Bulldogs.
“I just think we are going to be very community driven and involved,” she said. “We want to give back to the community as much they give to us by just coming to games and that kind of thing. The more people we can get to games, the more exciting it is and the more successful we will be.”
The hiring of Thornton marks the third coach in four years for OHS. Tina Deese, former Auburn University head coach, retired in 2018 after five seasons at Opelika. Randy Belyue resigned this spring after two years, but only coached one season of games due to COVID-19 in 2020.