E.A. Sports Today

Triumphant return

Pleasant Valley wins right to host area tournament in coach’s return; Bryant advocates statewide dugout safety measures

Alisa St. John retired the first 10 batters she faced and pitched a no-hitter in Pleasant Valley's 4-2 tiebreaker victory over Piedmont. (Photo by B.J. Franklin/GungHo Photos)

Alisa St. John retired the first 10 batters she faced and pitched a no-hitter in Pleasant Valley’s 4-2 tiebreaker victory over Piedmont. (Photo by B.J. Franklin/GungHo Photos)

By Al Muskewitz
East Alabama Sports Today

JACKSONVILLE — David Bryant was trying not to cry. He did a good job of holding it together.

It has been an emotional week and a half for the Pleasant Valley softball coach, his family and his players. On Tuesday, he returned to the field for the first time since his daughter — a pitcher and outfielder on the team — was seriously injured during a tournament and guided the Lady Raiders to a 4-2 special playoff victory over Piedmont for the right to host the Class 3A Area 12 tournament.

Alisa St. John pitched a no-hitter.

Bryant addressed both teams in the pitching circle after the game and when the teams separated for their respective post-game huddles he was mobbed by his players.

“I guess the first thing I’d probably say is I want to thank everybody for keeping my family and Anna in their prayers and please continue to pray for her,” Bryant said. “The second thing I could say is there aren’t enough words to describe just how thankful and grateful I am to coach this group of girls. They’re a special group — unselfish, compassionate; again, there just aren’t enough adjective to describe how I feel about this group.”

The game Tuesday was as much about his return to the field as it was what the Lady Raiders needed to get done on it.

Anna Bryant was struck on the side of her head by foul ball as she sat in the dugout during a tournament in Ardmore and later underwent emergency brain surgery. David and wife Dana, the PV volleyball coach, had been at her side throughout her recovery. Anna came home last weekend and reportedly is in “good spirits.”

David held practice with the team for the first time since the accident Monday. On Tuesday, much to the coach’s surprise and delight, Anna made it out to Sandy Hunter Field and visited with her teammates briefly a few hours before they played the game.

“That was refreshing for her to come out and for the girls to see her — and for me to see her,” Bryant said. “I’m not going to lie: I was looking for her. When I saw her pull up and get out, it made my day.”

In typical Anna fashion, she wanted to know where her gear was because she wanted to play.

When she gets back on the field will be determined by her doctors. On a scale from A to Z, Bryant said Birmingham neurosurgeon Dr. Jeffrey Blount said Anna’s current state of recovery is at E and playing ball was at W.

“We’ve got to take it a day at a time, but that’s not a priority for us,” Bryant said. “Her health, her recovery, being able to grow up and be a good mom and have a productive life, that’s head and shoulders above playing ball.

“If God allows a full recovery and makes a way for her to play and we feel like she’s going to be 100 percent safe, then we’ll think about.”

Bryant said the last 10 days since the accident have flown by and the family has been comforted by the prayers and support they’ve received from across the state.

“Getting the field ready today took on a new meaning, to be able to come out here and simply drag the field and line it off and cut the grass,” he said. “Life is short and we take things for granted. I just thoroughly enjoyed the little things today that I’ve overlooked a lot of times.

“It’s amazing how something like the event that happened can change your perspective — on everything.”

As a result of the accident, Bryant vowed his team would not sit in another dugout “as long as I’m coaching here” in which the players were not protected top to bottom. He has plans to draft legislation, either on the state government level or within the AHSAA — Anna’s Law — to make dugout protection in softball and baseball mandatory.

He said advances have been made in other aspects of the game to protect players, but dugout safety has been neglected. He said the neurology department at Children’s Hospital, which treated Anna, supports his crusade.

“We’ve made advances in helmets, we’ve made advances in bats and balls and concussion training for coaches, but one thing that’s not been addressed is dugouts,” he said. “Everywhere you go … they’re open.

“Any organization out there, we’re going to work with them to try to get that to be a priority.”

To that end, earlier in the day workers installed protective netting on the upper segment of the Lady Raiders’ dugout “tight as a banjo string.” More permanent solutions are expected to be in place by the time they host the area tournament, but Bryant said he is prepared and was willing Tuesday to sit his players with their parents in the stands if that precaution had not been addressed.

St. John said the PV players “feel a lot safer” in the dugout since the netting was erected. There were several hard-hit foul balls during the game that got Bryant’s attention and at least twice umpires motioned players to get back in the dugout.

“You can’t help but think about it,” Bryant said. “Prior to this, I never thought about it.”

The teams decided to play off their tie in the area standings instead of flipping s coin to determine the tournament host. PV won the toss and elected to host the game, but Piedmont was the home team.

Before Anna left the players Tuesday she reportedly told them to “hit the ball hard, win this game and finish it.” They did all of that.

The Lady Raiders (25-13-1) took a 2-0 lead in the third on consecutive doubles by Julianne Bellew, Atleigh Brannon and Cheyanne Griffith. They added a run in the fourth when McKinley Parris knocked the ball loose at the plate scoring on Mikayla Kendrick’s squeeze bunt and one in the fifth on an infield error.

Piedmont scored two in the sixth without the benefit of a hit. St. John said it took all her focus to get out of the “crazy” inning that had three walks and two hit batsmen.

St. John retired the first 10 batters she faced and did not allow a ball to the outfield in the game. Brannon and Kara Perry preserved the no-hitter with web gems in the infield.

“I felt like I did pretty good,” St. John said. “My team really helped me come through, especially in that sixth inning.”

The best part of all was seeing their coach back in the third base box.

“I felt like we were whole since he was there,” Brannon said. “It was good to have him back.”

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