By Rob Ketcham
The Cullman Times
The first time Wallace State softball coach Jayne Clem saw Rachel Ragland play in person was at a fall tournament in Trussville. This little Pleasant Grove junior was bringing heat in the circle for the Birmingham Vipers when Clem approached Ragland's recruiter without much hope in mind.
"I bet there's not a chance we can get her at Wallace."
Even with a full year left in her high school career, she never looked at another college.
Now, Ragland's the 2014-15 Alabama Sports Writers Association Community College Athlete of the Year. The major award comes on the heels of Alabama Community College Conference (ACCC) Player of the Year and National Junior College Athletic Association (NJCAA) first-team All-American honors.
"I don't think they really had any choice," Clem said of the ASWA after rattling off the sophomore's list of recent accolades. "She's very deserving. Everything we asked her to do, she did. She was just amazing when she was out there on the mound."
Two reasons Ragland was sold on Wallace State from the get-go were Clem's honesty and track record on the state and national levels. Without a sophomore on staff to look up to, however, the pitcher's first season with the Lions didn't go quite as planned. The program, fresh off its second national championship, clinched a ninth consecutive ACCC Northern Division title but was unable to secure the conference tournament crown for only the fourth time since 2003.
Ragland, an All-ACCC second-teamer, was crushed by the early exit, so she returned to Wallace State this spring even more determined than before. It paid off both personally and for the program, as Ragland compiled a 25-7 record with conference bests in earned run average (1.32) and strikeouts (210) while leading the Lions (62-14) to the ACCC title, a No. 3 national ranking and their lowest-ever seed (No. 2) at the national tournament in St. George, Utah.
Ragland, who tossed 228 innings, added nine shutouts and seven saves, as well as five home runs and 29 RBIs at the plate. Next year, she'll take her 44-17 overall record to back-to-back NAIA national champion Auburn University at Montgomery.
"It was hard not winning the state championship when coach Clem had won it all those different years," Ragland said, reflecting on her freshman campaign. "Getting put out and having to watch the other teams play was very upsetting. When we went to Utah (this year), it was the best feeling. Even though we didn't do as well as I would've liked, it was just a great feeling to be there."
Ragland's velocity despite standing 5-foot-9 and "maybe 120 pounds soaking wet" was responsible for Clem's consistent use of the nickname, "Olive Oil." Unlike Popeye's super-skinny love interest, though, Ragland often did the rescuing, utilizing a unique leadership style heavy on actions and light on words.
"She didn't do a whole lot of talking," said Clem, an 11-time ACCC Coach of the Year. "But when she did say something, the girls knew they better listen because it was meaningful."
One of those girls was Julia Dailey, Ragland's roommate from Huntsville. The freshman could see why Clem referred to Ragland as quiet but comically confirmed that's not always the case away from the softball diamond.
"Obviously when she's on the field, she's focused and she doesn't want to talk a whole lot. She wants to focus on her job and winning," Dailey said. "But off the field, she's just a really fun person to be around. She's not afraid to let it belt in the car singing sometimes.
"She was always the first person to congratulate me and the first person to help me. She was a constant motivator, she was my best friend and she was also my coach. I was very lucky to get to spend a season with her."
Ragland is the third Wallace State student-athlete to receive the ASWA's top community college prize. Cory Cooperwood (men's basketball) and Jennifer Sexton (softball) earned the recognition in 2006 and 2007, respectively.
(Reprinted with permission from The Cullman Times)