November 21, 2012. I remember it like yesterday. I arrived at work earlier than normal to get the paper finished due to the Thanksgiving holiday. I came in, checked my email, greeted everyone that arrived after me and then the boss walked out.
"There was a bad car wreck last night on Spring Hill," he said. Curious like always I said "what happened?" "I'm not really sure," he said, "but a Benton teenager was killed."
My heart sank.
Rewind 15 hours. It is Nov. 20, there is a sea of green and a crowd of people gathered at the Benton Arena entrance to watch star third baseman Korie Parker sign her letter of intent to play softball for the University of Arkansas at Monticello. I was standing by an old coach and longtime family friend Jerry Chumley just shooting the bull when a tall, gorgeous girl walked up. It was Drew Melton, the Lady Panthers vacuum of a shortstop.
Chumley tossed her the basketball he was often seen bouncing or carrying.
"That feels good, huh," Chumley said with a laugh as he joked with Melton as to why she should play ball. Melton laughed it off, shooting her famous smile back our way.
The celebration for Parker continued then concluded with a picture of the entire softball team--one primed and ready to make a state tournament run in just a few months.
Back to Nov. 21.
"Who was the teen," I asked. "Um, Drew Melton," the boss answered.
My body filled with goose bumps and I lost my breath in shock.
"You have got to be kidding me," I said in a chopped up voice.
After a few phone calls at 6:30 in the morning to confirm, the news had spread and was true. Drew Melton, the girl I had just spoken with hours earlier, was gone.
After many tears and days of asking God "Why Drew?" the shock was gone. My attention turned to the girls I had made a living writing about for the past year and how they were going to respond on the diamond. It was almost as if the 2013 season was over before the first pitch was even thrown. What was once going to be a promising year turned to tragedy and a big question mark. At least to the eyes of outsiders that didn't have "BENTON" across their chest and a number on their backs.
What would happen in the following months was something I will never forget for as long as I live. Without key role model and friend in Melton, the Lady Panthers began the season with an emotion-filled benefit game, leaving shortstop open for the first pitch. But before the game, the famous sound of "playing shortstop, No. 5, Drew Melton!" burst through the speakers as lineups were called out. With tears rolling, Benton went on to win.
The girls had pulled together, gained confidence that even though their friend wasn't there, everything was going to be OK.
As the year went on, the Lady Panthers won numerous games, honored Melton with a tournament in her name, an unforgettable balloon release and many more celebrations of her life. With a second-place finish in the 7A/6A South, Benton was finished with the regular season and on to the 2013 State Tournament with a whole new look at life. Parker was the new shortstop, Ashton Currey stepped in to fill third, playing amazing defense and ripping the cover off the ball all year. Best friends Sydnee Golman and Daphne Bono headed up behind the plate and first base while Jessica Hardig took care of business in center and Taylor Maxwell in left field, all behind gunslinger Jessica Franklin. The seniors were closer than ever. After three dominating wins in the first three rounds of the tournament, Benton was in the finals, a step closer to the title than the previous year when they lost 2-1 to Russellville in the semifinals. Everything was working out just like they had hoped, even with the absence of Melton in person.
With the Number 5 on every Benton jersey sleeve and Melton on the brain, Benton entered Fayetteville's Bogle Park with heavy hearts. The game started, the game ended and Benton went home without a title. But that didn't matter.
It was the bond that Melton's life caused that was at the top of the list. With embracing hugs coming together and uncontrollable tears flowing, the Lady Panthers were closer now than ever. They were closer teammates but even closer friends. To overcome the death of a friend and teammate the way Benton did was like nothing words can describe. Melton didn't take a swing, catch at ball or get an out in 2013. But one things is certain. She was at every game, for every out and every win and loss.
Rest in piece Drewbie.