Patrick Ochs

Tears, timeout, handwritten letter marked St. Martin softball star's last at-bat

COURTESY KATELYN GRUICH 
 Harrison Central coach Jimmy Parker gave St. Martin's Katelyn Gruich a note after his Red Rebelettes eliminated the Lady Yellow Jackets from the playoffs. Parker later said it was the first time in his coaching career his has given an opponent a note.
COURTESY KATELYN GRUICH Harrison Central coach Jimmy Parker gave St. Martin's Katelyn Gruich a note after his Red Rebelettes eliminated the Lady Yellow Jackets from the playoffs. Parker later said it was the first time in his coaching career his has given an opponent a note.

Jimmy Parker has been coaching Harrison Central's fast-pitch softball team since 1995.

Saturday, he did something he has never done before.

Heading into the Class 6A South State series against rival St. Martin, Parker made the decision he wasn't going to let Katelyn Gruich beat the Red Rebelettes. If the other players could rise up and knock off the defending champs, so be it, but the South Alabama signee wasn't going to be the difference maker.

In Friday's series opener, Gruich didn't register an at-bat as she was intentionally walked three times.

Saturday was more of the same as Gruich was intentionally walked two more times.

It was the ultimate show of respect from one of the best coaches in the state.

"A lot of people don't understand: I can't let Katelyn Gruich beat me," Parker told the Sun Herald following Saturday's 9-0 series clinching win. "Katelyn Gruich can beat you with one swing of the bat. She did that last week to another team. I think the world of the kid."

The respect goes beyond Gruich's seven homers this season; or her .583 batting average; or her 1.791 OPS.

"She plays the game like it's supposed to be played," Parker said, recalling Gruich sliding hard into second base to break up a double play. Some spectators shouted that Gruich slid in too hard.

Parker was proud of his middle infielder for taking the hit, but applauded Gruich for her effort.

"I love to see kids play the game like that," he said. "We're not seeing a lot of that like we used to."

With his team well on its way to another Class 6A championship series, Parker opted to let Gruich hit one last time. Instead of jogging straight to first base, Gruich got one more chance at the plate.

Realizing it was her final at-bat in a St. Martin uniform, the moment overcame the usually strong Gruich. With tears beginning to stream down her face, she called timeout to compose herself. Coach Donna Swilley consoled her star, reminding her she'll have plenty more at-bats in college.

In a moment that was deserving of the silver screen, the fans stood and applauded Gruich.

"The emotions," Gruich recalled Monday. "I called the timeout to pretty much relax myself and enjoy the moment.

"To be honest, that moment meant more to me than the at-bat because I spent my five years playing for those fans -- not for myself."

Probably too consumed by the moment, and facing one of the Coast's top pitchers in Kristen Cade, Gruich struck out. Regardless of the outcome, Gruich appreciated her final chance.

"I respect him for giving me one last at-bat as a senior," Gruich said. "Really, he's a coach that's all about the business. I respect him as a player. He's there to win like the rest of us."

In the handshake line after the game, Parker extended one last gesture of appreciation -- a first in his career.

He didn't say much when he crossed paths with Gruich. He just handed her a handwritten note:

"You are the scariest hitter in the state. Good luck. Coach Parker. 5/7/16."

Simple and understated. Parker wanted Gruich to know the walks were just business and nothing personal.

"She's a winner," he said Monday. "I probably wasn't her favorite person in the world Friday and Saturday but I don't want it to be that way (forever). I want her to have success down the road.

"She's one of the strongest kids with a bat that I've ever faced," Parker continued. "She's going to be all right."

Gruich concluded her outstanding prep career with a .442 batting average, 159 hits, 21 homers, 124 RBIs -- and one note that she'll keep with her as a reminder of the sun-drenched Saturday in Lyman when she was the star even in defeat.

Patrick Ochs, a Sun Herald sports reporter, can be reached at pochs@sunherald.com or followed on Twitter at PatrickOchs.

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