Meleah Brown earned The Starkville Daily News Fastpitch Coach of the Year in her first season at East Webster. (Photo by Kim Murrell, SDN)
"I will never go back to that place."
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That was the thought Meleah Brown had about East Webster High School in the spring of 2006.
At the time, Brown, then a senior pitcher for Bogue Chitto High School, had just had her dream season cut short courtesy of East Webster's 1-0 win in the deciding game of the Class A South State finals.
While the Wolverines were on their way to capturing their first of four straight state titles, Brown saw her high school career come to a painful conclusion as she promised herself she would forever steer clear of Cumberland.
Life had other plans.
"Here I am back now and I love it," said Brown, who after several seasons of service to East Webster as a student assistant while she attended Mississippi State University, just put a wrap on her first season as the Wolverines head softball coach.
For Brown, what a debut campaign it was.
In earning the Starkville Daily News' All-Area Fastpitch Coach of the Year honors, Brown guided the Wolverines to a 20-8 overall record in 2011, including the Class 2A North championship.
Not a bad outcome at all for a team who, just one season before, missed the playoffs entirely and was now playing for a rookie head coach.
"At the beginning of the year, I knew what kind of potential we had, but I didn't know that we'd ever get to our full potential," said Brown. "I saw a few things that we had struggled with the year before so I tried to make those changes to better the team and it worked out for us. Game by game, I saw every girl growing, whether it was defense, offense or anything. Everybody constantly got better."
In an ultra-tough Region 3 that included perennial softball powers Hatley and Hamilton, continuous improvement was a must for East Webster. With just the top two teams from each division reaching the postseason, Brown knew East Webster had a rough hill to climb.
"Playing Hamilton and Hatley in our district, that's tough," said Brown. "It's not an easy task just to get to playoffs. That's two really good teams."
So from the beginning, Brown's goal for East Webster was clear: don't be the odd team out at the end of the regular season.
That objective didn't get off to a very good start. Having already lost to Hatley, Brown knew her club's first meeting with Hamilton was nearly a must-win affair.
"We really needed to get up on Hamilton after losing to Hatley," said Brown. "But we got down 4-0 quick and I was just a nervous wreck."
Brown didn't have to fear for long. East Webster's offense stormed back to claim the win that day, putting them on the path for a playoff spot.
Though Hatley again beat East Webster later in the year to claim the division crown, the Wolverines were able to punch their postseason ticket by becoming the region's runner-up courtesy of a pair of lopsided district wins over West Lowndes and one more victory over Hamilton.
Through it all, Brown was able to get contributions from everyone.
"Our hitting came through this year and was much-improved from last year," said Brown. "So was our defense and pitching. We were just all-around better this year."
Part of East Webster's renewed success can be pegged on the team's talent. Boasting a roster comprised of skilled youngsters and veterans alike, the Wolverines already had the ingredients to rack up wins.
However according to Starkville Daily News All-Area Fastpitch Player of the Year and East Webster pitcher Swayze Hollenhead, it took Brown's competitive demeanor to mold those ingredients into the ultimate mixture.
"She's not afraid to speak her mind and she'll tell you what to do," said Hollenhead. "If you're not doing it, you just won't play on her softball team."
Of all the Wolverines, Hollenhead perhaps had the most unique perspective of Brown. On the fateful 2006 day that Brown's high school career ended in Cumberland, Hollenhead, then a 7th grader, was in East Webster's lineup facing off against her future coach.
"I remember she had a good changeup and I think I struck out about every time I faced her," said Hollenhead. "But she knew that she owned the mound when she was out there. You could just see it."
Hollenhead said Brown brought that same fire into her coaching style, showing emotion during practices and games.
Those moments provided Hollenhead with a display she'd seen before.
"I saw (Brown) get so mad when we beat them (in 2006)," said Hollenhead with a laugh. "She was furious. This year, she'd get mad in practice and things, but I'd tell the girls, you all have never seen her as mad as I have."
Oddly enough, things came full circle for Brown, Hollenhead and East Webster last weekend. After an incredible run through the playoffs that included playoff sweeps over Eupora, Mantachie and Hatley, all done while dealing with the aftermath of the tornado that destroyed East Webster's campus on April 27, Enterprise-Clarke swept the Wolverines in the state championship series.
Following the Wolverines' season-closing loss, the Wolverines lined up on the third base line at Freedom Ridge Park in Ridgeland as Brown handed each player their silver medals.
During those moments and the moments that followed, Brown was overtaken by emotion, shedding tears after falling just short of the ultimate prize.
Just like five years prior, Brown was hurting, only this time, her hurt was for East Webster rather than against it.
Now, with a little over a week to reflect on it all, Brown says her first season as head coach at the school she vowed never to return to, was more special than she could have ever imagined.
"I did not see it coming," said Brown. "If someone had asked me at the beginning of this year if I saw myself going to the state championship with this team, I'd have said 'no way.'
"But everyone improved and matured over the course of the season, and while I didn't see it coming, we got there and they did everything I asked of them."