15haleynelsonFreedom Christian Academy’s softball team experienced tragedy before its 2019 season ever started. But by season’s end, the coaches and players were able to move from tragedy to triumph as they bought home the school’s third North Carolina Independent Schools Athletic Association state title in four years.

The Patriots entered this year’s NCISAA 2-A state tournament as the No. 3 seed but cruised through the double elimination portion of the playoffs unbeaten. They beat both top-seeded Rocky Mount Academy and No. 2 Halifax Academy along the way, the former on its home field in a 16-inning duel lasting over three and a half hours.

Freedom finished the season 16-4 under the leadership of first-year head coach John Smith. Smith was no stranger to the Freedom softball program. He became the school’s director of security in 2016 after his longtime friend, the late Eddie Dees, had become Freedom’s softball coach and led the Patriots to their first-ever softball championship.

Dees passed away that same year. Smith, a former member of the Cumberland County Sheriff’s Department and the Hope Mills Police Department, continued in an assistant coaching role until he was asked to take over as head coach entering the 2019 season.

It wasn’t long after he was hired that the team experienced misfortune. Haley Roberson, the starting third baseman, died at her home in late September one morning before school.

“She was a solid defensive player and an offensive threat,’’ Smith said of Roberson. “Between the emotions of losing her, starting the season without her and trying to fill that void, it was some trying times.’’

It was reflected in the team’s record as they struggled to a 3-3 start.

“We only had five returnees and eight new girls,’’ Smith said. “The nucleus of that bunch was seventh and eighth graders. They had travel ball experience, but they hadn’t been with our program. We had to learn their skill set.’’

Smith praised the work of two veteran assistant coaches, Russell Montgomery and Jimmy Nelson. “They know the game inside out and were there to help me,’’ he said.

So were their two daughters, pitcher Haley Nelson and catcher Molly Montgomery. Nelson, a junior, is committed to play at Queens University of Charlotte. Montgomery, a senior, has a scholarship to Gardner-Webb University.

Just getting to the postseason was a brutal test for Freedom because of the tough competition it faced in its own league, the Sandhills Athletic Conference. Cape Fear Christian Academy won the NCISAA 1-A state championship. Fayetteville Christian made the final four in the 3-A playoffs, and Village Christian was a top ten seed in the same classification.

The Patriots lost at Rocky Mount Academy 4-0 in their second game of the season, so Smith knew when they faced them again in the state playoffs it was going to be a challenge.

“It was definitely a pitching duel for 16 innings,’’ he said of the rematch in the state tournament. Finally, Marissa McQueen, a seventh grader, drilled a double to right center to score a pair of runs that held up for the win.

Nelson went the distance on the mound and recorded 13 strikeouts in the win. Both she and Montgomery were selected to the NCISAA 2-A All- State team.

But those aren’t the most interesting numbers about the championship season. Roberson’s jersey number was three, her position third base, and that number kept popping up for Freedom in the postseason. To begin with, they were the third seed in the state tournament.

They won the final game of the tournament over Halifax 6-3, after scoring three runs late to break a 3-3 tie. And when the season was over, the Patriots had their third state title.

“Although Haley was not present, she was there in spirit and mind with us,’’ Smith said.

Photo: Haley Nelson

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