Downs returns to Childersburg
by ERICH HILKERT
CHILDERSBURG—Hillary Downs finished her softball career at Jacksonville State University with a .357 career batting average while receiving a first team selection for the Ohio Valley Conference, making the commissioner’s honor roll for academics, and playing for a team that won the Ohio Valley Conference. It’d be hard to argue she didn’t accomplish a thing or two throughout her playing career.

The former outfielder will return to the field this season as head coach of her alma mater, Childersburg High School. Downs will be the first to admit coaching and playing are very different.

“It’s worlds of difference,” Downs said. “You know the game because you played it for so many years, and you kind of understand how the girls are thinking because you were there at some point in your life, but there’s so much paperwork you have to have done for the AHSAA and you have to schedule games and you have to worry about if the bases are right, are our bathrooms working? For our tournament next weekend, we’re trying to get everything in order. As a player, you don’t think about those things. You don’t think about, ‘Well, is the concession stand clean? Do we have stuff to sell in the concession stand?’ It’s a lot more administrative stuff than I expected, but I’m so OCD about being organized that it’s coming together. It doesn’t mean it’s easy, but it comes together.”

Downs has a background in business, not teaching. In fact, for a while, she thought she couldn’t be a teacher.

“I’d always said ‘I don’t want to be a teacher. I don’t want to be a coach. I don’t have the patience for that,’” Downs said. “I still do have to work on my patience sometimes.”

Downs earned an MBA from JSU in 2012, but she felt working in an office was unfulfilling.

“I thought: sitting in an office in Gadsden, I’m not making a difference in anybody’s life,” she said. “Nobody’s life, except maybe my bosses by doing my health and safety job, and I thought, ‘Well, this is my opportunity to make a difference in somebody’s life. Maybe this is what I was born to do. I took the job and here we are today.”

Initially unsure she had the qualities to be a teacher, Downs soon found two great opportunities presented to her. She felt loyalty to Childersburg because it was her alma mater. Still, Downs admits sometimes it is strange to walk the same hallways where she was once a student. Downs teaches at Childersburg Middle School, while handling coaching duties at the high school.

“I’m at the middle school, so I don’t get to see the girls at the high school,” she said. “But we sometimes get the opportunity to bring our good students with good behavior to the pep rallies. So, I’ll walk into a pep rally and I’m thinking ‘No way I’m a teacher here.’ I was a cheerleader at Childersburg High School, so I was involved in pep rallies. They still do some of the same cheers that we did, we still have some of the same softballs at our field from 2006, some of the same equipment is still there. It’s kind of weird to walk through the halls and be like ‘Oh my gosh, I was a student here seven years ago.’”

This will be Downs’ first season as a head softball coach. However, past coaches taught her things that she now finds herself applying in her own coaching.

“At JSU, the mentality of the coaches was you need to take responsibility for your teammates and make sure they’re doing what they need to be doing,” Downs said. “If they’re not doing what they need to be doing, you need to let them know, ‘Hey, you don’t need to be doing that. You should be doing this.’ So, you’re held accountable for your own actions. I’m trying to instill that in these girls. You are accountable for your teammates. If your teammate does this wrong, it looks badly on you as a team, not just you as a person.”

Downs said the most impressive thing about the coaching staff at JSU was they taught players things that extended beyond the playing field, things Downs said she can apply to essential aspects of her life for years to come.

“That whole coaching staff there, of course they want to win ballgames,” she said. “Of course they want to do that, but they are all about teaching girls responsibility, school comes first—get your education … God is of the utmost importance, and not just teaching you to be a better ballplayer, but teaching you to be an all-around good person. I’m not a wife yet, but I will be one day. I really think the things that I learned there will help me be a good wife, a good mother, a good coach, a good sister, a good daughter. So, I really think playing under them, I’ve learned some of those things and not at one particular moment. It’s not an ‘ah-ha’ moment. It’s like the whole experience makes you a better person because they’re good people and they care about you.”

Downs said a great deal of coaching is based upon building relationships, which has been one of her greatest learning experiences as a coach thus far.

“I hope I learn a lot more, but I think you learn you have to have the respect of your players to be able to get them to play for you,” she said. “I don’t want my girls to play necessarily just for themselves. I want them to play for the team. I want them to do it for the pride of their school and in themselves and in their team. So, I think that’s what I’ve learned most. You can’t just tell somebody to jump and expect them to say ‘How high?’ You have to earn their respect and build a relationship with the student-athletes as well.”

Two of her players were not shy to express their admiration for her as a coach.

“I would describe her as a tough teacher,” third baseman Jessica Parris said. “She’s always on us about being positive and supportive. She always gives great details of how to do it and when to do it. She’s always talking about us being a team. That’s why we all love her because she acts like a friend, but is also tough enough to be our coach. One day at practice, she got on to me personally about not diving and she came out there and dove for us and started getting real loud and was like ‘That’s how you’re supposed to do it.’ It made me think ‘Yeah, she’s a good coach.’ She comes out there and shows me how to do it.”

Her teammate, pitcher Chelsea Mowery, echoed similar sentiments.

“Like Jessica said, she’s really tough on us, but she wants us to stay positive,” Mowery said. “It’s really easy for us to learn from her because she’s been in our situation and she’s been playing, so it’s easy for her to teach and easy for us to learn from her as a coach.”

Whenever Downs needs advice, she turns to one of her biggest fans, her mom.

“My mother has never missed a game, unless she absolutely had to,” Downs said. “We have a good relationship. We tell each other the truth. There’s no beating around the bush there. If it gets down to the nitty-gritty and I need some advice, I know she’ll shoot me straight and tell me the truth, so pretty much my mom has been there. That’s one thing I love about being here. My family’s here. My roots are here.”

The Childersburg High School softball team will begin their season at Central Coosa on Tuesday with first pitch scheduled for 6 p.m.

© 2013