BY WIL CREWS
Year one as the head coach of any athletic team, at any age, is a zigzagging journey that is guaranteed to have its ups and downs.
To the enjoyment of Jessica Thornton, head softball coach at Opelika High School, the 2022 season — her first as a head coach at any program, at any level — had more highs than lows.
The 2022 varsity Lady Bulldog softball team finished its first campaign under Thornton with a 20-17-1 record. The Bulldogs performed well enough to win the regular season and postseason area championship. Last week at the regional playoffs in Gulf Shores, Alabama, Opelika saw its season come to a close with a 2-15 loss to Saraland High School, finishing one win short of qualifying for the state tournament.
According to Thornton, the results of the season are categorically a success,
“We had more wins than we had last year,” she said. I didn’t really have any expectations coming into this year, my first as a head coach and with a new program. I think all in all it was definitely was a successful season.”
As always the case when seasons end, one of the most exciting things about the success Opelika enjoyed this season is the chance to build on it for next year. Opelika’s case is exceptionally positive because the Bulldogs did not roster a single senior on this year’s squad, Thornton said.
“We have a great group of kids and we don’t have a single senior, so I think the most exciting part is just that we get to take this year and build on it and have everybody return,” she said.
Reflecting on her first season as a head coach, one of the things that most came as a delight for Thornton was the buy-in from her players.
“[What impressed me was] their work ethic,” she said. “I could say jump and they would say how high. They did everything we asked of them and more, and really bought into what we are doing. That is going to be the most exciting thing going forward, we get to take everything we learned this year and all that hard work and see it through to next year as well.”
Just a week after putting a bow on the season, Thornton could not yet pinpoint things she will do differently in year two. Moving forward, however, she and her staff plan to evaluate what areas the team can build on for next season.
“We are going to do some reflecting and see what we can improve on,” she said. “There are always things you can improve on and work at so we will see where that goes.”
One thing Thornton does know, however, is that the Bulldogs can take their program to higher heights and that the girls will be ready come fall.
“I am look most forward to seeing where they take it,” Thornton said. “This is kind of their program, and we are trying to give them tools for success, but the most exciting part is that they get to see where they want to take it. We finished top-16 in the state out of 64, so that’s pretty good. I’m excited to see where they can take it from there.”