Tornado damage forces team to hit the road

Chyanne Brown and the East Limestone softball team are putting a good face on a difficult situation. Suzie Whitt for ESPNHS

Last April 27, Brett Nave, the softball coach at East Limestone High School in Athens, Ala., woke up with a lot on his mind. Senior Day was approaching, and he was fully immersed in finalizing logistics for what was to be a celebration of a highly accomplished group of girls.

That celebration would never happen, as three tornadoes blitzed through the north central region of Alabama and plowed through East Limestone's athletic facility. The softball field was demolished in an instant. A dugout disintegrated, the batting cages toppled and several light posts folded like they were King Kong's origami project. East Limestone's baseball fields were also damaged, as were a new shared batting facility and a storage building.

Suddenly softball became secondary. Senior Day was cancelled and players focused on the safety of friends and family. The community suffered no fatalities and the school itself wasn't hit, but several players' homes were damaged. It wasn't until five days after the tornadoes blew through that the East Limestone softball team united and began dealing with the on-the-field ramifications of the natural disaster.

The total damage to the athletic facilities amounted to $1.3 million, a staggering loss that would not be covered by a couple of bake sales.

"Several groups came in from the state and went through what was damaged," said Nave. "The coaches had to itemize everything we needed again."

The good news was that the state would institute a plan to rebuild East Limestone's athletic assets. The bad news? It was going to take awhile. So long, in fact, that softball and baseball fields are not scheduled to be rebuilt until after the 2012 softball season later this spring.

"From the moment we learned that we probably won't have a home field this year, we decided not to use that as a crutch," said Nave, whose varsity team will have to play all of its games on the road in its quest to reach back-to-back regional tournaments. "There are no excuses. We're going to pack our bags and go. It's going to be a nice test for our girls to see if they can keep that momentum going."

East Limestone has already begun to cultivate its road-warrior mentality. This season, the Indians will learn to appreciate the little things.

They might not have endless buckets of new balls, because a lot of the money normally generated from team fundraisers has gone to helping the families of players whose houses were damaged. They might have to take infield at a local park. Heck, sometimes they might not even have a park.

"We've been trying to find anywhere we can to get some practice in," said Nave. "Sometimes we've even taken grounders in parking lots."

Dodging traffic during infield practice or taking a ball in the chin after it careens off a pothole was nothing after what these girls have been through.

"It was weird but we all kind of enjoyed it," said junior Chyanne Brown, who is expected to pitch and play center field this season. "It probably wasn't the safest thing to do, either, but we made the most of it. We're not going to let a bad situation affect us or bring us down."

That positive spirit could be the very thing that inspires a community to work toward rebuilding its high school softball field in time for Senior Day 2012. The players have tried to do their part, removing every fallen tree branch and loose dugout brick so construction crews can begin the restoration as quickly as possible once the bid is approved.

"Hopefully after a long road season, we can get these seniors back for one more home game and celebrate the end of a bad thing," said Nave.

In the meantime, the East Limestone softball team will hit the open road in 2012. And -- like the terrifying trio of tornadoes that ripped through the region last spring -- it will try to overpower all opposition.