Leading with the Heart

Hopewell softball player Russell a lasting example for teammates

by Aaron Burns

When the Hopewell Titans softball team is on the diamond, chances are you’ll hear Lindsey Russell giving pep talks or setting an example of how the Titans should play. You’d think she could even be the team’s coach, considering how well the rest of Hopewell’s roster takes notice of her instructions.

Who knows? Maybe one day she’ll join the coaching ranks.

Coaching softball is something Russell is planning on doing in the future. Perhaps it’s only natural that Russell wants to coach after she puts down her pitcher’s mitt. But her possible career in the dugout will have to wait four more seasons. Last winter, Russell signed a National Letter of Intent with Pfeiffer University.

Until then, Russell is focused on two things: wrapping up her senior year, which is her third campaign on Hopewell’s varsity roster, and leaving a lasting legacy on a program with its third coach in as many years.

Cheryl Burwell is now at the helm of Titans softball, but this isn’t her first season as Russell’s coach. At Bradley Middle School, Burwell coached Russell, and the pupil returned the favor once she went to Hopewell, coming back and helping Burwell at Bradley whenever she could.

Now they’re together again. Burwell said she just hopes to help keep some continuity at Hopewell.

The coaching carousel that has been Titans softball the last three years hasn’t had much of an effect on Russell. Instead, it gave her a chance to do something she loves to do and talks about often: prove herself to be the best in the business.

How does anyone handle three different mentors, three different styles of play and three different sets of expectations in three years as a high school player? Russell seems to have a pretty good answer.

“I just remind myself why I’m here (on the softball field),” Russell said. “I’m here because this is my passion. It is my life, and I love it. I remember about everything that’s happened in games since I’ve been here, down to just the little things like people making bizarre plays.”

A longtime conference contender and a two-time state champion in 2002 and 2003, Hopewell softball has enjoyed more than its fair share of stars on the diamond. Shaina and Miranda Ervin, from the Titans’ 2003 team, moved on to N.C. State. Stephanie Spain, who signed with Furman after graduating in 2010, was Russell’s teammate for two years.

A Who’s Who of softball standouts garnish the record books at Hopewell. And while Russell said she fully appreciates everything that’s been done before her – and what the Titans will do after she leaves – she just wants to prove herself worthy of her captaincy, accolades and scholarship. She doesn’t want to compare her career to the Titans’ greats.

“I know I’m signed (to go to Pfeiffer), but I want to prove myself here first. I never get comfortable, because you can always get better,” Russell said.

Even as a last-semester Hopewell senior, it all goes back to proving herself. Maybe it shouldn’t come as such a surprise, considering how Russell spent two years as a key player. But now she is the key player – the one who leads by example, by instruction, whatever it takes.

All this from someone who could’ve been a dancer.

“I danced for two years as a kid, and decided I wanted to try something else,” she said. “I felt like softball was the right thing for me, and it’s been that. Although I didn’t start pitching until I was in eighth grade, I feel comfortable out there now.”

Russell wasn’t always comfortable being the one hurling riseballs, fastballs, changeups and anything in between at opposing batters. When she was a sophomore, the pressure of being on the mound against some of the state’s best hitters was nearly too much. But now that she’s asserted herself as one of the I-MECK 4A’s best pitchers, she’s gone from nervous sophomore to confident senior.

She’s also grown into playing the “coach on the field” role, not to mention having a pretty solid hold on what she refers to as her spot, the top position in the pitching rotation. But she earned it, Burwell said, and the rest of the team looks up to her, not only for her talent but also her caring personality. Russell said she considers everyone on the team to be a close friend, but her bond with Tayla Berry, a fellow senior who plays third base, might be strongest.

“When I’m not pitching, I’m playing shortstop, and Tayla is third base, so we always tell each other, ‘Left-side love!’” Russell said. “We have our little handshakes and everything. None of it really has a meaning. It’s just something we like to do.”

Helping motivate teammates is just one example of Russell’s caring attitude. She hopes it will aid her in her post-softball career goal of becoming a nurse. Pfeiffer’s nursing school was a plus when she made her decision to sign with the Falcons. While she greatly looks forward to furthering her education, Russell said being a coach once she graduates and moves into the workforce is more of a certainty than a possibility.

“Yes – a hundred times yes,” Russell said with fervor. “If I can change one person’s life through softball, that’s great for me. I know what it’s like to play for a team. It’s built my character, and I want to help pass that experience on to other girls.”

When asked what is the best piece of advice she’s given the younger Titans, Russell paused and said, “I can’t think of anything, but I know that they’ve given me great advice: ‘Play every game like it’s your last. Whether we play Hough, Lake Norman, no matter the competition, always go hard.’”

These days, there isn’t much time left for activities off the diamond or away from the classroom. But the self-described country girl loves when she has the time to ride ATVs.

Then again, not even that hobby, or her love for watching “Jersey Shore” can compare to the enjoyment she gets from playing her favorite sport.

“I love softball so much that that’s what I focus on,” Russell said. “I want to prove myself, leave a legacy here, leave my mark here. I grew up here.”

It seems that at any given moment, Russell’s mind is focused on proving herself, whether it’s to the Hopewell faithful, Pfeiffer coaches, her family or the most difficult person of all – herself.

One thing’s for sure: She won’t have to prove herself to her present coach. Burwell said that was accomplished long ago.

“She’s just always been an outstanding role model,” Burwell said. “She’s a wholesome young lady that I wish everyone could be more like.”

Clearly, Hopewell has been the beneficiary of Russell’s decision years ago to try softball over dancing. Russell said, as she puts the finishing touches on her prep career, there are no regrets. It’s been diamond over dance floor for years now, and Russell is more than happy with that.

The proof is in the pitching.

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