SPORTS FEATURE: Keep swinging for the fences – After overcoming '19 injury, staging career senior season, WL's Pollock signs with ABAC
The Courier Herald – December 5, 2020
The game of softball, for Caroline Pollock, comes second in priority only to a short list of things not much longer than God, family, friends and school.
The sport, which the West Laurens senior has played since the age of 4, has always occupied a place of lifelong love and dedication almost equal to and inseparable from that of her other pursuits and relationships.
And that's why a season-ending injury she suffered a matter of games into her junior year last fall proved to be so crushing. For the first time, her ability to play softball was taken away. But thankfully, only on a temporary basis.
"It was very devastating, for this to be as big a part of my life as it was," Caroline said. "But it drove me to do better in the offseason so I could have the best senior year possible, and I think I definitely achieved that."
This fall, she roared back to lead the Raiders to a third state tournament berth in four years, as one of the final four teams remaining in the playoffs. In 38 games, she clubbed 50 hits, 23 for extra bases, along with six home runs and 39 RBIs.
"Missing her junior year, it made her want to really prove to everybody that she's as good a player as I felt like she was," said West Laurens head coach Mike Thompson. "She probably put together one of the top single seasons I've seen in my career as a coach. It was really spectacular."
That already memorable senior year became even more so on Thursday, as Pollock signed a National Letter of Intent that promises to extend her softball career by several more seasons, on scholarship at Tifton's Abraham Baldwin Agricultural College. She was joined by coaches, teammates friends and family for the ceremony at the WLHS media center.
Pollock, in four years as a varsity starter at West Laurens, recorded a career batting average of .375, 110 hits and 75 RBIs, tying or breaking a handful of school records. The Raider second baseman, also a Georgia Dugout Club 2020 all-state team selection, drew the attention of ABAC for her ability to hit for both power and average from the left-hand side of the plate.
Her smooth, textbook swing is the product of years of work in the batting cages with dad and West Laurens assistant coach Jody Pollock, who played collegiately at Georgia Southern, and later Georgia.
While softball and baseball are already common threads in the tightly-knit relationships between "Caro," her mom, dad and brother, Cason, she and Jody forged a special bond over the years while taking BP, often four or more days per week.
"The ballfield and the cages are like our sanctuary," Jody said. "As a coach, I've been there from the get-go. I don't usually get to see all the kids when they put in the extra time. You know kids do, but you don't get to see it. (With Caroline), I was there every time. It's been me and her at the cage since she was eight… It makes you prouder as daddy and a coach, knowing the work they put in and seeing the results that came out."
Their commitment to the behind-the-scenes process, what both knew would be required to reach the college level, set in for real beginning with Caroline's seventh-grade year.
"He's the one that taught me that work ethic, determination and hard work is everything about the game," Caroline said. "Playing for him has been the greatest experience that I've experienced so far. It's really upsetting that it's coming to an end. At the end of this season, every game, starting from the playoffs, every time we'd advance to the next one, we'd go hug each other and say, 'We're not done yet.'
"It's definitely a bond that will never be broken, that not many people have with their dads."
Thompson said Caroline was already one of the program's best players when she began playing varsity ball in 2017.
"She's definitely improved," he said. "When she came in as a freshman, we thought she could be a great player. And she was then. But she's worked hard in the weight room and she's worked hard on and off the field, and it showed."
The junior-year injury came on a freak play that suddenly, and unexpectedly, cut her next-to-last season short.
"It rocked all of our worlds, tremendously," Tracy recalled. "But Caroline overcame. She's just a fighter."
Her parents and coaches both remember seeing Caroline back in the batting cages as soon as she was cleared to return to softball activities, just weeks after the 2019 season wrapped up. And an even more determined grind in the off-months helped lead to the blowout year she had at the plate this fall.
"In our family, we try to give back and give praise to God," Jody said. "Some people may not understand, if you take softball away from a kid. But it ripped our hearts out. We always told her that there's a reason. And I think it was that he really gave her that drive."
Tracy compared the setback, and her response, to a moment she observed when Caroline was running a footrace in elementary school, stumbling and skinning her knee only to pop back up and finish… in first place.
"She's always inspired both of us with her work ethic, and her ability to overcome," she said.
Caroline started her senior season on a 20-game hit streak, Thompson said, and wound up with a hit in all but five of the 38 contests.
"She's just always been a very committed kid," he said. "Always seemed to be very focused on her goals and what she wanted to accomplish, and she wasn't scared of work. That was the main thing. She may be one of the hardest workers I've ever coached."
She hit a game-tying triple in the Raiders' do-or-die Game 2 win over Madison County in the state quarterfinal series in October, and delivered another clutch RBI on a base hit to contribute a key run in the deciding rubber match the next day.
Jody said he considered the experience of coaching Caroline, in both the full-team setting and those one-on-one afternoons, "the best time of my life." And the ending to her time in high school, with this past season's playoff run, couldn't have been more memorable.
"This was a special year," Jody said.
While he'll now have to hand her off to ABAC head coach Jennifer Walls, the two are likely to still find a way to continue their one-on-one sessions going forward, even if it's a little less often.
"We're not done hitting in the cages," Caroline said.