By Brian Paglia
Sometimes Dan Wallace can turn the verdant girls that come to him for instruction into magnificent softball pitchers. He lines the walls in his basement pitching den with newspaper clippings to honor those ones.
That's where it starts for Amber Harrell, Brooke Loudermilk and Terri Mesko - in Wallace's pitching den, a long room in his basement where aspiring pitchers pound pitch after pitch to Wallace and then listen to what he has to say about what he sees.
And Harrell, Loudermilk and Mesko are still there, up on the walls that used to surround them, sharing the same space because they shared so many things.
Each was one of the best high school pitchers in Henry County history - Harrell for Henry County, Loudermilk for Luella and Mesko for Eagle's Landing. Each graduated in 2006. Each went off to college programs in the Southern Conference, a Division I-AA conference.
And as Wallace noticed, each contained that intangible trait required to achieve such things.
"Of those three, they have one thing in common," Wallace said. "They really wanted to work hard at it."
Now each approaches their senior season in college, the twilight of their softball careers, for a future in this sport is not as guaranteed. Even for a player with the talent each of these pitchers share.
If there can be a way to save the proof of their skill, it is in the record books, and each has made a place for herself there.
Mesko is the most prolific strikeout artist of all-time at the College of Charleston. She is the all-time leader in strikeouts for a career (535, and counting) and in a game (15, twice). Her name appears 45 times total in Charleston's annals. But it is said best in Mesko's biography on Charleston's website: "One of the most dominant pitchers in the history of Charleston softball."
The label "one of the most dominant pitchers" seems to fit for Loudermilk. In her career at University of Tennessee-Chattanooga, she also holds the career strikeout mark (650, and counting), the single-game standard (15, twice) and has twice been named the SoCon Pitcher of the Year (2007, 2008).
And then there is Harrell, who it seems reasonable could become the University of North Carolina-Greensboro's strikeout queen this season. She needs 139 to break the school career record, a mark well within her reach.
But some of their feats in high school were even more remarkable.
Before Mesko's senior season, Wallace told her to strikeout every batter to overcome for Eagle's Landing's poor defense. She nearly did, finishing with 495 strikeouts.
"Terri was a rise ball, drop ball, change up pitcher," Wallace remembers, "and she definitely relied on that rise ball to get her strikeouts."
Harrell went 18-7 with a 0.48 earned run average her senior season at Henry County. Once, Wallace remembers, she threw three consecutive no-hitters in a tournament.
Loudermilk found the greatest team success. In 2006, Luella went 28-10 and finished second in the state to Ringgold.
Collectively, it was one of the most compelling softball scenes in the state and a golden era for the county.
"You could call it the 'hey day,'" Wallace said. "Parents that didn't have children that went to the schools would go to their games and bring their younger daughters out to see these great competitors. And they were definitely great games."
"It was always tough competition," Harrell said. "You never knew who was going to come out on top. It was always going to be a tie-breaker game or a 1-0 game when we played against each other."
"We had such a talented class," Loudermilk added.
Each of them attributed much of their development as players to Wallace's tutelage.
"Dan is so relaxed," Loudermilk said. "He was going to push you if you wanted to be pushed. He kept it lighthearted and kept it fun. I never once didn't want to go to lessons. I always looked forward to seeing him. He kept me loving the game."
They all came to Wallace around the same age - Harrell at 10, Loudermilk and Mesko at 12 - but already had known each other from school and softball camps. Soon the state titles they coveted had to be earned by pitching against each other.
Now in college, not much has changed. A handful of times each season, they share a mound for seven innings, with the win they covet earned against an all too familiar foe.
"They're all great kids," Wallace said. "The sport has helped them get an education, and the sport helped them finish out their senior year having an education basically paid for."