The Harlem High School softball team has stepped out of the shadow of other Columbia County prep fastpitch squads this season.
Since local high schools switched to fastpitch in 1997, Greenbrier, Evans and Lakeside have earned region championships, while Harlem has been stuck with second-place region finishes three of the past four years.
But by becoming the 2001 Region 3-AAA champions, the Lady Dogs are finally in the limelight.
''We're no longer the bridesmaid, we're the bride,'' Harlem coach Krista Meadows said after her team capped its region sweep with a 9-2 victory over Jefferson County on Tuesday in Harlem.
''I'm a competitive person and I like to win. At times I did get a little frustrated and felt like throwing in the towel,'' Meadows said. ''But you persevere. I'm glad I did and glad the girls did - look where we are now.''
Harlem has fielded good softball teams in each of Meadows' five years as head coach, but something always kept the Lady Dogs from taking a title.
''We didn't get the key hit when we needed it, or we'd make a critical error here or there,'' said Bobby Fox, who has been assistant varsity softball coach for Harlem the past five seasons.
This year was different. Meadows credits faith, saying the team lives by the Biblical quotation, ''I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me.''
Christian attitudes didn't mean turning the other cheek - the Lady Dogs simply refused to back away from any challenge in 2001.
Harlem edged Cross Creek 4-3 in a critical region contest Aug. 30, but the Lady Dogs still received no respect.
When Harlem traveled to Cross Creek for a rematch Sept. 25, first place in Region 3-AAA was at stake. The Lady Razorbacks showed their disdain by hanging a bulldog from a noose in their dugout.
''They were beating the bulldog between innings, and that fired our team up more than anything I could do,'' Meadows said.
Harlem was on a mission that day, and after a 6-3 win over Cross Creek moved the Lady Dogs into first place in Region 3-AAA, there was more work to do.
Jessica West stole the bulldog from Cross Creek's dugout. Two days later, after the Lady Dogs followed with a 22-4 victory at Richmond Academy, no one could steal the region crown from Harlem.
''This is a tough team. They come out fighting,'' Meadows says.
On Tuesday in Harlem, before the Lady Dogs played their final home game of the season, the team honored its five seniors - West, Shannon Camp, Raven Whitaker, Toya Johnson and Stephanie Frails.
''They're the backbone of our team,'' Meadows said. ''I just have such a deep feeling of admiration for them. They stuck it out and they deserve to be region champions.''
During the pre-game ceremony, as the seniors recounted their favorite memories, a story of perseverance unfolded.
Whitaker recalled the Laney game, when she injured her knee while sliding into home plate and had to be carried off the diamond. But she was ready for the next game.
Johnson will never forget the day the softball hit her in the nose and she still made a great catch.
Frails remembers the time her arm was shredded by the outfield fence, while West says her best memory was rescuing the bulldog at Cross Creek.
And Camp spoke for every Lady Dog when she said her most memorable moment this year was ''All of them.''
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