Despite tornado and coronavirus, Donelson Christian Academy softball claims it's the 'luckiest' team around

A gesture of kindness from the Fort Walton Beach program will remain with the Donelson Christian Academy players long after they return to the field. Courtesy John Carey

AS THE FEROCIOUS storm ripped toward his family's home just east of Nashville, Tennessee, John Carey told his 10-year-old daughter to climb into the bathtub. Shelby threw on a softball helmet and covered herself with the twin-size mattress from her bed. Carey and his wife lay next to the tub. It was 1 a.m. on March 3. They thought it was the end.

A few hours earlier, the night had ended like any other. Carey, the first-year softball coach at Donelson Christian Academy, had nestled his head onto his pillow and excitedly thought about the season that was a week away. The team returned seven starters from the year before, including two seniors. Carey knew his team could hit and play defense. But after it graduated an all-state pitcher the year before, the team's top arm was senior Madeline Hood, a converted outfielder who in November offered to try pitching out of her team's desperation.

None of that mattered now. Tornado sirens howled. The wind pounded against Carey's home. And the weatherman on television warned that anyone living on Curd Road -- the Careys' road -- should take cover immediately.

"If you sneeze too hard, the walls of our house shake," Carey said. "So I was thinking, 'Well, it's been a good run.'"

But the heart of the storm never reached their home, staying a few thousand feet to the south. Their house was somehow spared, and the family went back to bed. Until the phone rang an hour later with troubling news. Donelson Christian Academy had taken a direct hit. Everything was gone.

For Carey and his team, it was only the beginning of a 10-day stretch no one would ever forget.

NESTLED AGAINST THE Stones River, Donelson Christian Academy sits tucked away in the Stanford Estates neighborhood of Nashville. It's a private school serving some 800 students from preschool to high school. The first thing visitors see upon pulling up is a softball field widely considered one of the nicest in the area. But after the sun rose that March 3 morning and Carey made the 15-minute drive to school that took him three hours that day, he couldn't believe what his eyes were telling him.

Light poles that were made to withstand 110 mph winds had snapped. The first-base dugout had crumbled into a pile of concrete blocks. The backstop was gone. A set of metal bleachers, once bolted down, was missing. And the right-field scoreboard had been twisted into a razor sharp metal ball. Beyond all that, a bit farther up Stafford Drive, was the school itself. Destroyed.

"It was like a scene from the old 'Twister' movie," Carey said. "Nothing was recognizable. It was just total destruction."

Although none of Carey's players lost their homes, one needed a teammate's father to use his Bobcat tractor to pry the family free after they were left trapped in their garage. The storm was the strongest of a dozen tornadoes that ripped through Tennessee that night, killing 25 people, injuring more than 300 and causing an estimated $1.5 billion in damage.

Madeline Hood, the senior pitcher, was in Orlando, Florida, on a senior trip when the storm hit. Her roommate woke up in the middle of the night to a phone call alerting her to the news. She started yelling, "Everything is gone! The school is gone!" After connecting with family and friends and making sure they were safe, Hood tried to fall back asleep. It was impossible. As she lay in her hotel bed 10 hours away from home, she began to think about her senior year.

"It just hits you that you're not going to be able to play on that field again and maybe not even play at all," she said. "You wonder if you're going to be able to make more of those memories."

As the cleanup at the school began, school officials placed a priority on getting the softball and baseball fields usable, at least for practice. In five days, both teams were scheduled to leave for Florida for their annual season-opening spring break trip. The school's leaders wanted the fields to be ready for practice when the teams returned.

"You just want to give the girls a sense of normalcy," Carey said. "Softball matters to them. And the sooner we could get them out there, the sooner they could realize that everything was going to be OK. And that this community loves them and is going to take care of them. We wanted them to see humanity function as it's supposed to. People caring for you with no regard for what's in it for them."

FOR THAT SAME reason, despite the devastation left behind from the storm, both teams went ahead with their spring break trips. It was an escape for the girls and their families. Area rivals donated softballs, bow nets and other equipment. On March 8, the team left for Florida. At that point, for most of them, the coronavirus was nothing more than a mysterious virus on the other half of the world that some people were dismissing and others were poking fun of on social media.

"We were so busy, there's so much going on, it's not like we even had time to watch the news," Carey said. "You heard bits and pieces about it here and there, but in many ways we were in this bubble trying to get life back on track for these girls."

On the evening of March 9, six hours from home, the Wildcats took the field in Santa Rosa Beach for the first game of their season. Hood, the senior pitcher, danced her way through a handful of walks. DCA won 27-9. But it was the next night, following an 18-9 loss to Fort Walton Beach, that featured a moment no one would ever forget.

Prior to the game, Fort Walton coach Jim Ryan presented Carey with a $3,000 check to help with the repairs back home. The school also gathered donations during the game, along with profits from concessions. As Carey gathered his team in the right-field corner to talk about the loss, one of the Fort Walton seniors asked if she could interrupt. Carey looked up and saw his team surrounded by the opposing players, coaches and their parents. They expressed their appreciation that the team had come down to play despite everything happening back home. Then they handed Carey a shopping bag with cash.

"We were like, 'What is happening?'" Hood said. "But they were like, 'We want to give you this. For you guys. To enjoy your spring break. To get your mind off everything going on back home. It was just like, 'Wow.' People we don't even know, helping us."

The postgame talk quickly transformed from softball to life and the lessons the young women were learning. Tears soon began to fall. And everyone from both sides embraced.

"Here's what should have been the scariest moment of their lives and they were seeing how you're supposed to love your neighbor," Carey said. "It's unexplainable to put in words the outpouring of generosity and love we received.

"We told our team, 'When you go home this week, somebody is going to need you. So remember how it feels when somebody helps you and wraps their arms around you.'"

THE FOLLOWING AFTERNOON, DCA lost the last game of its trip 11-0 to Walton High School. Carey and a handful of his players and their families stayed behind to enjoy the rest of their spring break at the beach. Carey gave the team Thursday, Friday and Saturday off before they were to meet for practice on Sunday back at school, where their home field was waiting for them.

But by dinnertime Wednesday night, the sports world began changing by the minute due to the coronavirus pandemic. First the Ivy League canceled all spring sports. Then Utah Jazz forward Rudy Gobert tested positive for the virus, prompting the NBA to suspend its season. By Thursday afternoon, the NCAA, NHL, MLS and Major League Baseball all had postponed or canceled upcoming events. High schools around the country quickly followed suit.

As Carey headed back to Nashville with his family on Friday, he received a call from his athletic director, letting him know the school had shut down all spring sports until at least March 30.

"I was just like, 'What in the world are you talking about?'" Carey said. "'You can't be serious right now.'"

There wouldn't be that first practice back at the field on Sunday. Instead, Carey told his 15 girls the season had been paused until at least the end of March. He braced for their reaction.

"I assumed they'd be crushed. I'd have to talk them off the ledge," he said. "But there was none of that. There was this bond where everything that they had been through -- it just drew them even closer together."

"We've learned to keep our head up," Hood said. "Everybody in this community is all going through the same thing. We are all feeling it. We all know it sucks. But we are in it together. We can't give up. We can't stop. We just need to be there for each other. That's what matters."

FOR NOW, THE 2020 baseball and softball seasons are frozen in the state of Tennessee. At Donelson Christian Academy, neither team has returned to the practice field since the tornado. Online learning begins Friday for the school, until at least the beginning of April. Whether or not the Wildcats will play again this season will likely be decided around the same time. Some states, like Kansas, have already canceled all spring sports.

But from the moment he first brought his team together this season, Carey has tried to explain that wins and losses, home runs and strikeouts aren't really what matters. It's the moments and stories you remember most. High school sports, he told his team, are about building those memories. It's about a group of individuals coming together in pursuit of a common goal while growing as people along the way. And if the 2020 Donelson Christian softball season ends with a 1-2 record, so be it. The last three weeks have been about so much more.

"At the end of it, we might have only played three games," Carey said. "But the lessons learned and the growth they've had, they will look back on this as the greatest season of their lives."

Added Hood: "You look around at everything happening right now and I feel like we are one of the luckiest teams. Who else is going to be able to tell their kids the story of their school getting destroyed by a tornado and only playing three games because of a virus? And to say that we experienced all that, grew from it and bounced back so quickly? We're the lucky ones."