By JOEL COLEMAN
Just over a month ago, East Webster's Swayze Hollenhead and Dallas Ferguson walked off of a softball field in Hamilton.
The Lady Wolverines, the Class 2A, Region 4 champions, had just been upended by the Lions in the second round of the playoffs, bringing a premature end to East Webster's 2010 slowpitch season.
Yet this loss did more than conclude the Lady Wolverines' state title hopes. It ended an era.
For six straight years, Ferguson, the Starkville Daily News All-Area Slowpitch Coach of the Year, and Hollenhead, the SDN's All-Area Slowpitch Player of the Year, had been a tandem in Cumberland.
Starting in the sixth grade, Hollenhead served as a manager for Ferguson's Lady Wolverines.
Soon after, the now-senior infielder began having remarkable season after remarkable season, including her recently completed award-winning campaign that saw her tally a .512 batting average and .634 on base percentage while hitting five home runs, three triples, and seven doubles.
She also drove in 23 runs.
"She has the most heart and the most hustle that I've ever seen," said Ferguson of Hollenhead. "Defensively, she's the best kid that's ever come out of East Webster. She's all over the field. She's diving and just making plays. That's just all about heart and it's something that you can't coach."
Though Hollenhead's desire and commitment may come naturally, her talent has developed through years of hard work.
"Ever since I was little, I practiced just about every day," said Hollenhead. "I was always playing softball. I always just wanted to be the best I could. My daddy always told me to just do the best I could and just leave it all on the field. Just go 100 percent and don't worry about anything else."
Hollenhead quickly took to her father's advice. Now, showing the intangible qualities that Ferguson speaks so highly of, Hollenhead claims she relishes each game's big moments. So much so, she wants the pressure to be on her shoulders, particularly if getting a win merits a crucial defensive play.
"When I'm fielding, it's like I want the ball to come to me," said Hollenhead. "I want to make the final play."
Hollenhead's fearlessness hasn't gone unnoticed. Ferguson says that no task is below her senior leader, regardless of whether the job is on the softball field or off.
"She helps me fix the field, she takes out garbage, she picks up the last softballs on the field and things like that," said Ferguson. "She just leads by being on the field. (It's) just her effort whenever she's out there."
Perhaps showing just how big an impact Ferguson has had on her senior, Hollenhead's thoughts about her coach indicate just how similar the two are.
"I've enjoyed playing for her and I always will," said Hollenhead of Ferguson. "She just always fights and wants to win. She wants everything to be put on the field. She wants everyone to have heart when they're playing. She just loves the game and teaches it so well."
Ferguson's guiding abilities were most recently put to the test earlier this season. With East Webster struggling, playing below .500 through the year's first few games, Ferguson attempted to put her team back on the right path.
"We talked to the team about playing with heart," said Ferguson. "We can do all we can do as coaches, but the team has to work together and play with heart. If you can get everybody doing that, then you'll see good things happen."
It wasn't long before the Lady Wolverines' fortunes turned around.
East Webster defeated county and division rival Eupora at home, reeled off a lengthy winning streak, finished 19-11, and went on to claim the region crown.
Amidst the success, Ferguson took the time to lend a little more coaching advice.
"I sat down and talked to the team and showed them how you can compare softball with life," said Ferguson. "We went through some times where we were getting beat right at the end and we had lost about four straight close games and we just couldn't finish it out. Everybody was down. The coaches were down. The kids were down. I just told them after we beat Eupora how life is similar. You're going to have hard times in life just like in softball. You just have to persevere and keep doing what you're doing and you're going to get through it."
Ferguson will have to put her own life lesson into practice next year, her first without Hollenhead in over half a decade.
Before that happens however, Hollenhead will suit up for East Webster in the spring for the 2011 fastpitch season.
Once that's done, Hollenhead's East Webster days will officially conclude, but she'll continue sporting maroon and white as a member of the Mississippi State fastpitch squad.
As for Ferguson, she may very well continue to experience coaching success, but knows it will be tough once Hollenhead is completely out of the picture.
"She's been a part of a lot of tradition and been a part of a lot of the championships we've won at East Webster," said Ferguson. "She's been a part of every bit of it. (Ferguson) and (fellow senior Cayley McClellan) are the last kids we have that have been a part of the four state championships. That's something we can't coach and can't replace."