Hagerstown, MD - Apr 20, 2019 - Jenna Knable remembers feeling devastated after the last out was recorded in her final JUCO game.
She still had two more years of college softball ahead of her, but it still was an emotional farewell for her and her Hagerstown Community College teammates, many of which she played with and against for years.
They would head their separate ways with their days at HCC over. But as Knable prepared to move on in life, she told coach Thomas Burge that one day she would return to be a part of the coaching staff.
Two years later, that moment became a reality when Knable was hired as the head coach after completing a strong senior season at Wilson College.
"I didn't think it would happen so soon. I was thinking maybe like 10 years later, not right after I graduated," Knable said. "I thought when I was done playing I would be hunting and trout fishing and doing all those things that college softball took away from me, but I'm so glad that I'm here instead of doing that."
Now in her second season, Knable's Hawks have something special brewing.
Last year, the Hawks reached the 20-win mark for the first time since Knable's freshman year in 2014. This season, they set the bar higher and reached the 30-win threshold during a doubleheader sweep of Garrett College on Wednesday.
It's the first 30-win season for the program since 2006, when the Hawks qualified for the NJCAA World Series. Back then, the sophomores on the 2019 team were in first grade. Back then, sophomore Emily Talbert wasn't making batters look foolish chasing her signature rise ball yet, and freshman Maddy McDonough wasn't displaying her impressive range at shortstop.
It's this team that Knable has grown so attached to.
She sees herself in each one of them. She sees the grinder who would do anything to help the team in sophomore catcher Madi Renn. Sophomore third baseman/pitcher Cierra Beaver is the jokester Knable was during her playing years.
Even though the roster features plenty of talent — most of whom are Washington County products like Knable — it's not the main reason HCC has enjoyed success.
Instead, it's the chemistry. The players have built a bond like no other, and as a result, their personalities run wild during games, making them much more enjoyable.
Maddi Miller has become the team's biggest cheerleader. She is always talking up her teammates at the dugout gate and starting chants such as a wolf howl when Kaitlin Wolfe is batting.
When they're not howling, the dugout becomes a choir singing every lyric of every song that plays over the public address system, and giving country songs a heavy metal head-bang.
On the nearly two-hour bus ride home from McHenry Md., the Hawks celebrated reaching 30 wins the same way they do every successful road trip — by singing songs at the top of their lungs and making a quick stop at Chick-fil-A.
"This has been the most fun season I've played in, both travel ball and high school," McDonough said. "If you really want to know how weird this team is, ask Emily Talbert to do her dinosaur noise. That's kind of a common thing where every game Emily makes a dinosaur noise."
HCC has the perfect blend of personality to get through a 39-game regular-season schedule made almost entirely of doubleheaders, and the talent to dominate.
HCC is riding a 15-game winning streak and has outscored opponents 333-290 on the season, including 16 shutouts, scoring an average of nine runs per game.
A big part of the on-field success has been pitching. Word is, Talbert's rise ball is a regular occurrence in the nightmares of batters who have struck out trying to hit it. The Williamsport graduate has far more strikeouts (126) than innings pitched (77 2/3).
Paired with Beaver's curveball, it makes calling games easy for Renn behind the plate. She also caught Talbert and Beaver in high school at Williamsport.
"We've been through it all. The good times, bad times, the wins and the losses, but at the end of the day we know each other better than anybody else on the team," Renn said. "Even on a bad day, I give them a certain amount of confidence that maybe they don't get from somebody else, but I know they can do it and their team knows they can do it. For Emily's rise and Cierra's curve, it's really key to the team and their pitching."
HCC has also been fortunate enough to not catch the injury bug, something Knable said in February would be important to her team's success. Around midseason, the Hawks hit a rough spot when about 10 players were dressing and the depth was tested.
Fortunately for the Hawks, that stretch did not last long, and those who were healthy during it stepped up.
Ask any player on the roster, and each will tell you these Hawks have their sights set on making a trip to Clinton, Miss., for the World Series. In order to qualify for that trip, HCC will need to win the Region XX tournament.
The Hawks' twinbill against Catonsville on Monday could determine which team gets the top seed in the tourney.
All season, the Hawks (30-7, 15-1) and Cardinals (27-7, 12-0) have been neck-and-neck atop the Maryland JUCO conference and region division standings. HCC clinched home-field advantage in the play-in round of the region tournament the weekend of May 4, with the remaining rounds to be played in Catonsville beginning May 9.
"We have the motivation that we're going to win it all this year," Renn said. "I have confidence in us as a team that each individual player is going to do their part."
As the Hawks prepare for the postseason, the practices have not changed. If it's not broken, why fix it? Every player, regardless of natural position, participates in an around-the-horn drill rotating around the bases. During the drill, shouts of compliments — with the occasional joke thrown in — pepper the field.
"I'd say not all of us are thrilled to be coming to practice every day, but by the end we're always laughing," McDonough said. "Before or after practice, or after a game, we always go out to eat as a group. It's on the weekends, too, as friends."
There have been talented softball teams at HCC in the past, but this one could finish as one of the best in program history. There are no easy outs in the lineup and it's certainly not easy to score against the pitching staff.
"I remember my high school coach saying my freshman year, 'There's three seasons within a season: The preseason, the regular-season games, and the playoffs," Knable said. "As we're heading into that third season, it's important for us to remember all the little things we've been doing. I probably don't want the season to end more than they do. I was talking with my parents about it and began to tear up. I truly love this group and couldn't ask for a better group of girls."