Last year’s Benton Lady Panther softball team finished the season with a 30-3 showing overall, 14-0 in 6A South conference action and a state semifinal loss to Russellville.
Heading into the offseason, Benton had one thing on its mind: winning a state title in 2013. The leader, and most outspoken Lady Panther pushing the campaign, was defensive standout and senior Drew Melton.
All of this changed during the early morning hours of Nov. 21, 2012. A car carrying several high school teenagers, including Melton, left the road at a high rate of speed and struck a tree. Melton suffered fatal injuries and two others were seriously injured.
Since that tragedy, the Benton Lady Panthers team members have become closer than ever while trying to cope with their heartbreak.
“The kids have done so well this offseason adjusting and coming together,” Head Coach Heidi Cox said. “Communication is so good among each other, and having to overcome something like this is something I would never want anyone to have to go through, especially young ladies at this age. I am so proud of them and the way they have fought and have been empowered by this.”
With the loss of Melton, the Lady Panthers have learned to cope with the void and look toward winning a state title for her.
“It was hard when we first found out about it all,” said Melton’s best friend, Sydnee Golman. “But we had to get over it and go out there and play.”
Though Melton wanted a state title more than anything, Golman said that she, along with the rest of the seniors, doesn’t want to put the pressure of winning it for Melton on them.
“I know she would just want us to play every out to the best of our ability,” Golman said. “I know that even if we don’t win, she would be proud of us and wouldn’t want this to tear us apart.”
“We know it is going to be hard, and we are going to have to get through the loss of a teammate,” senior Korie Parker said. “We really want to win this for her.”
Benton opens its 2013 season on Thursday with a full schedule of events to honor Melton on tap. When starting lineups are read, one name and position will not be announced. “Shortstop, DREW MELTON” will not be heard for the first time in two years. Instead, Cox will leave shortstop open for the first pitch to honor the defensive star.
“After the first pitch, we will call out who will be playing that spot,” Cox said. “At this point, I am not sure who it will be for sure, but it is looking like Korie Parker.”
Karrie McCurry is also in the running to play shortstop some this season.
Parker played alongside Melton for the past two years at third base. This season, Parker could be the new shortstop.
“No one is going to be able to fill her position like she did,” Parker said. “I would love to play shortstop. It would mean so much to me. (Melton) was like my little sidekick. I just hope I can fulfill her spot like she did because she was an amazing shortstop.”
Other than leaving shortstop open for the first pitch, Melton’s glove has been sent off for bronzing and will be placed on a dedication monument at a later date. The Bootsie Gordon Tournament that is played each spring will be moved to the fall and the Drew Melton: Forever Young tournament will take its place beginning this March.
“I don’t want to say that we are renaming the Bootsie Gordon Tournament because she did so much for Benton softball,” Cox said. “We are just moving that to the fall as a fundraiser.”
Cox added that there will be no gate for the opening day of Melton’s tournament and that more events are planned to honor Melton. Day two will have a gate price, but all proceeds will go toward the Drew Melton Scholarship Fund, according to Cox.
With all of the emotions running high coming into this season, the Lady Panthers still have a schedule to play and goals to achieve.
“We are honored to play for Drew, but that is not our main focus,” Cox said. “Our focus to play every game like it is your last and to get better after every game and to play for one another. It’s not about the winning; it is about overcoming. It will be the hardest year that I have ever coached.”
Cox said that she feels good about what her team brings to the table and also feels that her team can make another run into the 7A/6A state tournament.
“We had a talk a while back and had a ‘come to Jesus’ meeting,” Cox said. “It doesn’t matter who plays beside you today, because tomorrow could be different. We are going to overcome and not set ourselves up for failure.”
Thursday’s first pitch is set for 5 p.m. against Morrilton at Lady Panther Park.