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April 29, 2012

Wanting a ring of her own: Lady Rougher looking to follow in her mother’s footsteps with a state title

— Mother’s Day is two weeks away but if Francie Rowland has her way, her gift will come early.

It’s one she’ll share with her daughter.

Should Shaylee Rowland and the Muskogee Lady Roughers win the school’s fifth state crown at the OSSAA Slowpitch Softball Championships Tuesday in Oklahoma City, they will have completed a trifecta cycle for Francie.

She was a member of Muskogee’s first state champion in 1983.

She was an assistant coach on Muskogee’s second state champion in 1998.

“Now, I want to win one as a mom,” she said.

Shaylee helped get them to this point, a quarterfinal matchup against Broken Arrow set for 1:45 p.m. Tuesday at ASA Hall of Fame Stadium Complex. With her team trailing 6-3 in the sixth of Thursday’s regional opener, Shaylee was in right centerfield when a hit off the bat of a Muldrow batter came at her.

Her heart dropped.

“At first, I thought it was going over the fence,” she said. “When it got over my head, I realized I still might have a chance and I got back as fast as I could it. But I wasn’t that sure of anything until I had it in my glove.”

Shaylee’s running catch at the fence was the final out of the inning. Muskogee, the visiting team despite playing at home, came up in the seventh and Coco Epps tied it with a three-run home run. In the eighth, Kelsey McClure hit another three-run home run and Muskogee went on to a 10-6 win rather than start regionals in the loser’s bracket needing four wins to punch their 21st state tournament ticket.

“Honestly I think even if it had went over and we’d lost, we’d have fought back together and still made it to state,” Shaylee said.

It’s the confidence that comes from a program that’s been there 20 previous times, the first in year one of OSSAA slowpitch with then-Francie Parnell a junior first baseman.

It was Parnell who drove in the first run of the championship game played not at Oklahoma City but at old Memorial Park adjacent to Alice Robertson Middle School – the softball facility now nothing more than a backstop used for Green Country Girls Softball Association practices. It was Jennifer Clare (now Jennifer Lee, a Muskogee resident) whose two-run, ninth-inning home run made for a 4-2 victory against Pocola.

Slowpitch is a game that’s evolved since that year, which combined all classes into one. Fastpitch had been played since 1953, and Pocola had won 11 fastpitch championships.

“Back then Tulsa teams didn’t play slowpitch,” said Francie. Jenks and Union, adding it this past decade, has won the last two 6A titles.

“Here, slowpitch was what everyone played all year long. It was how we got seen. It was a championship and something I’ll never forget from my high school days. We hung together and became friends and friends were your family too.”

Francie would eventually have her own family into the game. Shaylee has been playing softball longer than she can remember.

“My memory doesn’t go to 4,” she said, laughing. “My earliest memories from softball was how I was meeting new friends every year. That’s pretty much it.

“I do remember when mom’s team won in 1998. Hal Sands (a longtime MHS assistant coach who this past season had to leave the team due to worsening health problems) was always with me even if we weren’t on the field. I have a lot of fond memories from him. It’s sad that he’s not here now.”

Francie sees a difference between mother and daughter’s playing style.

“She’s not as aggressive as I was,” she said. “I played some outfield and there wasn’t a thing I wouldn’t do to get a ball, be it make a dive or knock someone down to catch it.

“We’re both power hitters, but when I played the fields were designed for men’s softball. If you hit home runs you were clearing the outfielder’s head instead of a fence. I don’t remember how many home runs I hit that year but I hit my share.”

Shaylee, a two-year starter and sophomore who was the Phoenix’s Newcomer of the Year as a freshman, has 10 home runs this season and is hitting .556 in 133 at-bats, third on the team behind Paige Gann (.661) and Jessi Venable (.605). Her home run total is fourth, with Epps leading with 18, Gann and Venable with 14.

“We played a lot of tournaments back then, just like now, but there’s so much more today in terms of videos, teachers and coaches in the game that you can draw from,” Francie said.

Both share one type of instruction, that from James Parnell. The Fort Gibson baseball assistant coach and former fastpitch head coach at the school served as Francie’s hitting coach in the backyard of their childhood home. He does the same for his niece today.

“He drilled me all the time,” Francie said. “I had the ability and he had the want-to, which is evident in what he does for a living.

“He’s also been good with her. If there’s a problem with her hitting he’s there. And she’ll change anything for him. He’s got that way about him.”

Shaylee knows how the sport has bonded the family over the years and what it would mean to get a championship she could call her own.

“Mom told me it was the best feeling she’d ever had and she wants that for me, and to experience it as a mom,” Shaylee said.

Shaylee has three seasons to get it done but doesn’t see why she has to wait past Tuesday. Muskogee’s first opponent, though a fastpitch power with 11 state championships dating back to 1979 – interestingly, a pattern similar to the one Pocola had when they came to town for the first slowpitch championship four years later – is 34-1 in its inaugural slowpitch season, its lone loss against Sand Springs, which didn’t qualify for state.

Shaylee says the climate the Lady Tigers will face Tuesday is different from the one they’ve excelled in at fastpitch.

“BA has no idea what they’re getting into,” she said. “Unlike fastpitch this isn’t one game per day over a weekend. This is all what you’ve got that day and you’ve got to be on your game from start to finish.”

And if mom has her way it will end around 8 p.m. The title game is set for 6:15 p.m.

“If they play as a team and play well, it’s anyone’s game,” Francie said. “I’ve seen Westmoore beat Sand Springs, Sand Springs on another day would beat BA and BA would beat Moore. If you’re on that one day, it can make all the difference.”

The Muskogee-BA winner will play the Union-Tahlequah winner in the semifinals.

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