Column: Here’s to the unsung leaders

Published 10:01 am Thursday, February 29, 2024

Getting your Trinity Audio player ready...

By ANDREW SIMONSON | Sports Editor

Jason Harlow put me in my place on Tuesday.

After Chelsea’s loss to Hewitt-Trussville in the Elite Eight, I simply wanted to ask about his optimism for the future.

After all, the Hornets just went 26-6, with all three of the opponents they lost to reaching the Sweet 16 or further of their respective classification, have four of their five starters coming back next year and will move to Class 6A as a result of reclassification. What more could a coach want?

However, Harlow and his players were quick to remind me of the two seniors they just had to say goodbye to: Madeline Epperson and Baylor McCluney.

“Neither one of them are 5-foot-5, and they’re both softball-first, but two of the highest character kids I’ve ever coached,” Harlow said. “And so, for all the talent we have coming back, and I understand that people are going to look at us on paper and think that we’re going to be really good, if we don’t learn from those two seniors on how to approach the day-to-day and practice and grind and learn something from their character, then all bets are off next year. I can’t say enough about those two kids.”

Frankly, I should’ve known better, because he was spot on in his assessment.

For starters, Harlow mentioned how the pair have led the team before the season even began.

“You couldn’t ask for better leadership than what we have in these two,” Harlow said in the buildup to the season. “One, they’re vocal. They understand what our expectations are within the program. But two, they lead by example consistently on a daily basis, whether it’s practice or whether it’s weight room, whether it’s conditioning, it doesn’t matter.”

In addition, Epperson and McCluney had just put their bodies on the line a few minutes prior. Epperson selflessly took a charge that put her in foul trouble with her third foul but could’ve stolen a possession had the 50-50 call gone her way. McCluney played hard until the end and even scored the last basket of the game in the final seconds with the game already decided.

To them, it didn’t matter that they could be jeopardizing their senior seasons in their preferred sport of softball or that they weren’t leading the scorebook. They wanted to help Chelsea basketball finish the job and go as far as possible.

Beyond that, just a few hours prior in Birmingham, I saw Pelham’s Karma Wynn unable to play in the final game of the season but still there for her teammates, helping sophomore Tee King warm up and laughing with her before taking her spot on the bench to help inspire her team.

This is the same Wynn who tore her ACL in the first quarter of sub-regionals, returned to the game a few minutes later and didn’t leave until the Panthers led by 30 in the fourth quarter.

Looking back on my playing career, I couldn’t tell you who the best statistical player on our team was each season. However, I can tell you exactly who was a leader in the locker room, at practice and on the field.

Those are the people who leave the biggest impact long after they leave, and they play a crucial role in deciding a team’s success.

Chelsea and Pelham both went the furthest of any girls basketball team in the county this season by reaching the Elite Eight. Is it any coincidence that they have strong leadership coming from their players as well as their coaches?

I’m sure coach Harlow will read this and reassure me he knew that I didn’t mean to slight his senior leaders.

However, I’m glad he corrected me and got the chance to make his point because it can’t be overstated enough.

By nature, every sport is a numbers game. But in order to succeed, you need people.

You need selfless leaders who are willing to put the team ahead of themselves, work as hard as it takes to succeed and set the example for those who come after them, regardless of if they lead the team in scoring like Wynn or play a key supporting role like Epperson and McCluney.

We need more people like them both on the court and in life. They are the lifeblood of any successful team and deserve the praise.

So, here’s to the unsung leaders, the ones who lead regardless of who is watching and give their all to the team. May your impact always be recognized.