Tigers refused to let crown slip away

Published 12:00 am Wednesday, May 4, 2011



BOUTTE — As Hahnville coach Kenneth Vial put it to his Hahnville Lady Tigers, they had that Class 5A state championship softball ring on their fingers, right up to the knuckle — but it just didn’t stay on.

That was then. This is now.

Hahnville made history in 2010 when it made the state championship game for the first time in school history. It almost took things one step further, leading powerhouse St. Thomas More before ceding the lead and the game late.

But there was no stopping Hahnville this year, in a season where it was clear from day one that the Tigers were a team on a mission.

“Last year, it was a proud moment for us to get as far as we did,” said Vial. “It created a lot of positive memories.

“But there was still a lot of disappointment. We felt like we should have won the game.”

Vial and his Lady Tigers did not have long to digest the loss, as tragedy would command their full attention only five days later. Jessica Cancienne, who graduated in 2009 after a standout softball career with the Tigers, was killed in an automobile accident on May 5, 2010. Cancienne was a four-time All-District selection and an All-State performer as a senior.

Her death hit the coach and his team hard.

“It was just a shocking blow,” said Vial. “She was a close friend to our girls and someone who everyone admired.

“We didn’t really get to close the book on the season after (the championship loss), because it became very unimportant after such a tragedy.”

Hahnville lost just two starters from that state runner-up: starting pitcher Lauren Candies and third baseman Destinee Nicholas, each of whom had strong tournament performances. Replacing Candies, who won 77 games in three years for the Tigers, was of chief concern entering this season.

Vial, however, knew he had an ace in the hole.

“We knew we had a little kid behind her who could do the job,” he said.

That would be junior Hannah Haydel, who pitched the complete game in the championship victory. It was a bit of redemption for Haydel, who relieved Candies and took the loss in last season’s title game against STM.

“Nobody outworks Hannah Haydel,” said Vial. “She’s very tough, very unemotional. Her composure is such a strength. She can get hit and not bat an eyelash. Lauren struggled early in her career with that concept, but it comes naturally to Hannah.

“My concern, entering the season … we knew she could be as good as Lauren was, potentially. But could she be as consistent, because you always knew what Lauren Candies was going to give you.”

Early on, Vial said his concerns seemed to be coming to fruition. While Hahnville was winning, he felt his pitcher would need to establish more consistency if the Tigers were to reach their goals.

So he came up with a new plan before district and shared it with Haydel and catcher Amye Barre.

“I wasn’t sure if the problem was with Hannah or me, so we needed to find that out,” he said. “I called my pitcher and catcher in and told them, for the next six games before district, you’re going to call the pitches.

“They were excited. And we got better over those six games. And they asked me once district began, ‘What are we gonna do now?’ And I told them that I was going to grab a bucket, sit myself down and eat sunflower seeds. I might have called 10 pitches for the rest of the season.”

Hahnville tied with East Ascension for the District 6-5A championship, each finishing with a record of 8-2. It was a district that boasted the No. 2, 4, 7 and 8 overall seeds in Class 5A.

The competition was fierce, as it has been historically in that district. Vial credits his team’s placement in 6-5A as a turning point for the program.

“We had to get much better,” he said. “That first year, we won 25 games and didn’t even make the playoffs because we lost too many in district. We weren’t prepared to battle like these teams battle … in the past, we’d always made the playoffs because we were the most talented in our district.”

Vial said that he and his coaching staff completely overhauled their approach. They sped up the pace of practice and changed its format. They read books written by coaches on different philosophies and applied them. It was all necessary, he said, because teams like St. Amant, East Ascension and Dutchtown were a different breed.

“They go nine deep,” he said. “A lot teams you see, they might have four or five good players that you account for, then you get a bit of a break at the end of the lineup. In this district, the break comes after the game.”

Once Hahnville received its draw for Sulphur, the opinion of many Vial spoke to was that the Tigers, who were seeded fourth, were stuck on what was deemed the “tough” side of the bracket, having to beat old nemesis St. Thomas More and likely top-seeded Barbe to even reach the final.

“My attitude was that it’s not that we’ve got to play those teams. Those teams have got to play us,” he said. “I’ve never had an easy game in Sulphur, so I don’t know what anyone expected.”

The quarterfinal game against St. Thomas More was a hurdle the Tigers would have to get past. In addition to the title game loss a year prior, Hahnville lost to St. Thomas More at STM’s tournament, 5-2.

Vial said his players were dejected after the loss, but that he got what he wanted from the game.

“We learned how to pitch to them from that game,” he said. “We needed to beat them in April, not in February.”

He’d look like a prophet after an 8-0 win over the defending 5A champions.

Hahnville led throughout against Barbe and downed the top seed 3-1 in the semifinals, although it received a scare when Haydel was hit by a line drive and appeared to be shaken up.

“I thought it was over,” Vial said. “But she’s a tough, tough kid.”

Finally, Hahnville did what it had been preaching all season: it finished. HHS scored the first six runs of the game against Denham Springs and never looked back.

“I’m so happy for these kids,” Vial said. “All of those expectations, and they met every last one.”