By Billy Watkins
This was supposed to be a happy story, one celebrating the Belhaven University softball team: 34-5, ranked No. 5 nationally in NCAA Division III and riding a 10-game winning streak into the American Southwest Conference tournament, which begins Thursday.
And we will get to the happy part.
First, we must talk about the head coach and assistant athletic director, Kevin Griffin, and what he is going through. On Sunday, one day after turning 49, Griffin lost his mother. Brenda Askew Griffin of Byron, Ga. died at age 74 after a sudden illness.
The funeral was Wednesday. Belhaven gets a bye and doesn’t play until Friday. “My plan is to be there by game time,” Griffin said.
These will surely be the toughest games Griffin has ever coached.
““Mom was a huge Atlanta Braves and Georgia Bulldog fan, but she would change her entire schedule around to watch my Belhaven softball girls online,” Griffin said. “With her Georgia connection between a couple of our players (Carley Ingle and Allie Gordon) who she followed during their high school careers, she loved to see Belhaven succeed, but especially those two girls that she always asked about.”
Kennedy Carruth, one of the nation’s top pitchers, said the players are hurting, too.
“We are all thinking about Coach,” Carruth said. “The players get together and talk before every practice about whatever we need to focus on. We’ve talked this week about making sure we get this done for Coach Griffin. We know he wants to win a national championship. We just have to work hard and trust God’s process.”
Now to the happy part.
In an interview with Griffin just hours before his mother turned seriously ill, I joked with him: Who had he rather face at the plate — Carruth, who has struck out 189 batters in 132 innings, or his son, Konnor, a 16-year-old freshman pitcher/outfielder at Jackson Prep who throws in the 90s?
“Whew!” Griffin laughed. “I don’t think I’d do very well against either one. Konnor has only been throwing curveballs for eight or 10 months now. So I think I might rather face him. Kennedy can make a softball do some crazy things.
“She’s up for national pitcher of the year. She’s added two new pitches this season — a changeup that is not great but good, but also a drop pitch that I’ve had Division I coaches tell me it’s as good as they will face all year.”
Carruth said she uses it to “get people off my fastball and allow me to pitch down and up in the zone.”
Opponents are batting .164 against her.
Carruth, a sophomore from St. Francesville, La., is also one of the team’s best hitters with a .339 average, 5 homers and 33 RBIs. She transferred to Belhaven in 2021 after two seasons at Coastal Alabama South Community College.
But the talent on this team is rich and deep.
Allie Gordon, a third-year sophomore first baseman/third baseman, was the Georgia Player of the Year her senior season in high school. She had numerous Division I offers and her numbers show why: .421 average, 9 homers, 44 RBIs. She leads the team in all three categories.
“We had some help with Allie,” Griffin said and laughed. “I grew up with her parents. And because of the Covid rules, we’ll get her for two more seasons. She’ll graduate and then work on her Master’s.
“She’s a great leader.”
Griffin pointed out two other players: Sophomore Gracey Baucom of Purvis has been stellar on the mound: 10-3 with a 2.35 ERA. Senior Abby Trahan, an outfielder from Hackberry, La, doesn’t have flashy batting numbers (.281, 2 homers, 18 RBIs) but contributes so much more.
“Without Gracey giving us quality starts this year, I’m not sure we would be in the position that we are in,” Griffin said. She has worked really hard and has been amazing for us in the circle.
“Abby was a part of two national championships in junior college at LSU-Eunice. The competitive drive that she brings to our team — knowing what it takes to win championships — has been very valuable. Her leadership and experience are driving forces behind our success.”
Sophomore Haley Hanson (.409, 31 runs scored), freshman Ellie Jones (.407, 38 RBIs), and senior Marlee Blackwell (.336, 43 hits) have helped carry the load at the plate.
Griffin is due his share of credit. Before coming to Belhaven, he was a successful high school softball and basketball coach in Georgia. His Windsor High softball team won the state championship in 1998.
Still, Griffin considered himself a basketball coach who also coached some softball. His record on the courts of Georgia was 171-54.
But softball became a passion with each passing season. He was Clinton High School’s softball coach for three years before taking the job at Belhaven.
Now in his 12th season, his Blazers have won 362 games and counting.
“I took a baseball approach to softball,” he explained. “But I had to learn real quickly that softball and baseball are different. Things like bunt coverage is totally different, and I had to adapt to the speed of the game. But the swing is the same, the way you field a ground ball is the same.
“Maybe the biggest thing I learned was that girls have to feel good to play good, and boys have to play good to feel good.”
He’s recruited well, and he believes one of the reasons is “we don’t cram softball down the players’ throats 24 hours a day.”
He added: “We practice hard, but we also want our girls to have a college life.”
Carruth thought it might just be a recruiting pitch.
“But when I got to school here, I realized it’s really that way,” she said. “I just think we are a little more laid back about things. We don’t worry about the coaches jumping on us for every little mistake, and that helps us to relax and just play the game.
“This school is so Christ-centered. People have the mindset that we have to do everything for the Lord. Our team plays together, but we also hang out together. We are very close.”
The softball playoffs follow the same path as Division I baseball: Regional, Super Regional and World Series.
Last season brought late-season heartache.
After finishing the regular season 30-8, the Blazers were two-and-out in the conference tournament and were eliminated after three games in the Regional.
“Kennedy suffered kidney stones toward the end of last season, and that hurt us, of course,” Griffin said. “And I don’t think we did a very good job of keeping our girls fresh down the stretch. We didn’t rest people like we could have. We’ve made sure to do so this year.”
Griffin likes this group of players “because they hate to lose more than they like to win. That’s why our record is what it is. And I like the experience we have.”
He wishes, as conference champion, his team was playing the conference tournament on the Belhaven campus. “But we have no lights on our field,” he said. “Last year, Mississippi College let us use their field for the tournament. This year, we’ll play it at Delta State (in Cleveland). I wish it were different, but it is what it is.”
When not coaching softball, Griffin tries to watch as many of his sons’ games as possible. Konnor’s older brother, Kannon, plays for Florence High School.
“I catch some of the mid-week games,” Griffin said. “It’s a lot easier this day and age with all the livestreams.”
Konnor is rated one of the top prospects of the 2025 class. Most pro scouts and college recruiters see him as a 5-tool outfielder, but his pitching ability intrigues them as well.
Barring injury, he will have a decision to make in three years — turn pro or play college baseball.
We occasionally need to be reminded that those aren’t robots in the sports uniforms.
In the coming days, Konnor will be playing for an MAIS Class 6A state championship while his dad hopes to put national championship rings on his players.
Father and son will do their best to block out the pain, a few hours at a time, of losing a mother and grandmother. And they will recognize, perhaps more than ever, the difference in real life and the ballgames that imitate it.
Yes, the scores will still matter. They would’ve mattered to her.