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Like Irwin Academy, Randolph memories will live on

Opinion Column

Carlton Fletcher

Carlton Fletcher

Sweet dreams are made of this. Who am I to disagree?

— Eurythmics

As I read Herald Sportswriter Mike Phillips’ moving and excellent piece on the planned closure of Shellman’s Randolph Southern School in Wednesday’s Herald, I couldn’t help but think back to the early 1980s and the Irwin Academy girls softball team that I had the honor of coaching.

After years of post-high school drifting, I decided in 1980 that I was finally going to quit procrastinating and go to college. On a whim, I went to officials at tiny Irwin Academy in Mystic (a suburb of Ocilla) and asked if they might be interested in starting a football program. I’d always wanted to give coaching a try, and what better place to start than at a small private school that did not require its coaches to have degrees?

I was told that IA was indeed going to start a football program, but that its board had already hired retired coaching legend Fred Tucker (best-known for his tenure in Berrien County) to coach the team. They did mention, though, that the school was looking for someone to coach girls slow-pitch softball.

I told them I’d give it a shot, and so for the next four years — until the school closed its doors in 1984 — I got the opportunity to coach Irwin Academy’s softball program. I didn’t know anything about coaching girls or softball, so I decided the best approach to take was to coach this team like I would a boys baseball team. Looking back, I’m sure these curious young ladies thought I was mad when I told them we were going to work on things like sliding hard into second base to break up double plays and put in tons of situational baserunning to prepare for game-type situations.

It took a while, but the girls on the team — which, by the way, comprised pretty much all the female high school-age students at Irwin Academy — bought into the approach and worked like crazy. It didn’t take long to realize that there was lots of talent in the group.

The first two years were remarkable surprises: We finished second in our region tournament in 1981 and went to the state GISA Class A finals before being blown out in the championship game. The next year we won the region title and again lost in the finals, this time by a single run.

Graduation took its toll on the 1983 team, but we were fortunate enough to get some excellent transfers and some of the younger players suddenly developed into formidable athletes. One in particular stands out. When Amy McIntyre first came out for the team, we’d celebrate any foul ball she happened to hit during batting practice. Amy was a tiny sprite of a girl, and assistant coach — and good friend — Debbie Bates and I figured she’d never be much of a player.

By 1983, though, McIntyre had developed into an All-State player with a batting average above .400 and a knack for getting on base.

That ’83 team became a dynamo by mid-season, and that year the Lady Angels won the school’s first state softball title. Next year, IA went undefeated throughout its season and the playoffs, polishing off back-to-back crowns and an unbelievable perfect season.

Low enrollment, however, finally became too much for the school’s backers, and in 1984, shortly after that amazing perfect season, Irwin Academy closed its doors for good.

A two-time championship girls softball team at this tiny private school seemed beyond anyone’s hope when I was lucky enough to wander onto the scene all those years ago. But with the support of Lawrence and Elizabeth Kittle, two of the most amazing people I ever met and whose daughter Amy was the team’s excellent pitcher, and a lot of hard work by young ladies who perhaps weren’t aware just how good of athletes they were, one of those magical little athletic miracles took place at the IA field in Mystic.

I think back on those days often — of players like Paige Paulk, Sherri Hendley, Julie Tucker, Fonda Gentry, Wendy Roberts and so many others who were such a big part of the team’s accomplishments — and it always brings me joy to recall what a crazy, improbable time that was.

For the folks who attended and supported Randolph Southern, folks who must now move forward as their school fades into history, take solace that while the hurt is fresh right now, it will gradually be replaced with sweet memories that will keep your school alive for generations to come.

Email Metro Editor Carlton Fletcher at carlton.fletcher@albanyherald.com.