By Trey Williams
A family atmosphere helped the Milligan University softball team win the Appalachian Athletic Conference and advance to the NAIA World Series this year, and Unicoi County products Neelee and Allee Griffith certainly enhanced the sisterhood.
The opportunity to play college softball is a blessing, much less doing so with your sister. And advancing to a World Series a year after losing your season to a pandemic? Well, diamonds were the Griffith girls’ best friends this season.
“To be able to play college softball is honestly a dream come true,” said Neelee, who’ll utilize her “Covid year” for an extra senior season in 2022. “I never thought that I would get to play with my sister in college. It is definitely an everyday adventure playing with Allee in college.
“To be able to play on a championship team is rewarding because you know that every single one of the people around you want to win just as bad as you do. To be able to do that with Allee is unique because we will be able to talk about these memories forever.”
Neelee batted cleanup and played center field. She needs two home runs to tie Megan Aldridge Harmon’s career record.
“Neelee plays a great center field for us,” Milligan coach Wes Holly said. “We rely on her a lot for RBI production. We’re really proud of Neelee and what she’s contributed to our program.”
Allee, a rising junior (academically) who appeared in 22 games, drove in eight runs with her 35 at-bats this past season. Allee arrived as a pitcher, but back pain helped fuel a move to first base.
“She’s an excellent defensive first baseman and we rely on her a lot in clutch situations, particularly with bunting,” Holly said. “She excels in bunting. We use her a lot in clutch situations for squeeze bunting. She laid down some good bunts in our game at Columbia, South Carolina. And we were playing at Reinhardt and she laid down a great sacrifice squeeze bunt in that second game down there.
“Allee’s a great kid. She’s upbeat and she’s actually the inspiration of our dugout. I mean she keeps the morale going. So we’re really tickled with her attitude and everything with the way she contributes to our program.”
Neelee hit nine of Milligan’s 17 home runs this season. And opponents don’t make a habit of giving her good pitches to hit.
“She’s really improved, and she had a great freshman year,” Holly said. “I think she had 10 home runs that year. Of course, the more we play people and the more they know her, they start trying to pitch around her and everything. So her batting average fell off a little bit, but it’s picked back up. We try to stress to her to be patient at the plate and have good pitch selection, because they’re gonna try to pitch around her a lot because she’s such a power hitter.”
Neelee delivered in the clutch a number of times during the title chase.
“Neelee came up big for us in our homestretch,” Holly said. “It came down to a one-game differential between us and Truett McConnell. We split with Truett McConnell at our place and Neelee had a two-run home run in our first win. We had to sweep the last two games of the series, which we did, and it gave us the automatic bid. She had a clutch base-hit and two RBIs in that (last) game.”
A unified dugout proved to be heavy fuel for the stretch drive.
“Some of my favorite moments were winning the regular season and winning our opening round of nationals,” Neelee said. “The memories I will treasure the most are the ones that happened at practice or even off the field. Moments like ‘tarp pull’ in the dark while it’s pouring rain, or in the locker room before games.
“I think that our team chemistry is one of the best that I have ever played on. We understand each other and what drives each one of us.”
Certainly, Holly’s appreciation of Allee’s positivity couldn’t be understated.
“Coach Holly was very intentional last fall with improving our team chemistry,” Neelee said. “He has seen firsthand that you can have all the talent in the world, but if the chemistry isn’t there the team will not be very successful.”
Allee was also quick to credit locker room harmony as a key factor in the Buffs’ accomplishments.
“I think the biggest key to my team’s success is the close ‘family’ bond that we have,” Allee said. “We are extremely close and that shows out on the field. I love each and every one of my teammates.”
And teammates, it turns out, can bring sisters closer together.
“Being on a team with my sister is a good and bad thing,” Allee said. “I love my sister dearly, but we are two totally different people. Neelee always wants the best for me and holds me to an extremely high standard, and I do the same for her.
“Being able to experience this time together has allowed us to grow closer to each other. I really think that us being around each other all the time has really helped our relationship. We do not argue as much now that we are on the same team.
“We feed off of each other really well. I know what Neelee is going to do before she even does it. This is extremely beneficial because I can help when she is struggling. I am there to pick her back up.”
Neelee’s passion helped pave her sister’s path to Milligan.
“Neelee is a very driven athlete,” Allee said. “She is always keeping people in line. That is why she got the nickname ‘Boss Chicken.’ We have always grown up playing together, so playing at a higher level together was not going to be anything different.
“Neelee truly is the best sister. She is a role model on and off the field. To be completely honest I probably wouldn’t be playing ball in college for many reasons. She stepped up and showed me what it is like to work for something that I really want. She is also a tremendous help with schoolwork, even if I do have to annoy her to help me (laughter).”
Neelee is a double major in business administration and psychology with a minor in coaching. Allee, an education major, is also minoring in coaching.
Of course, watching the veteran Holly is like Softball Coaching 101. The ability of Holly and that of his assistant/son Wes Jr. , Allee says, was arguably the most important ingredient in a championship recipe.
“Coach Holly and Coach Wes are incredible coaches,” Allee said. “They will do anything for us without a second thought. They are insanely knowledgeable in the game of softball and they have added to my knowledge greatly. And I really appreciate the hard work and sacrifices they put into our team. They also have to put up with me, which is a job on its own.”
The Griffiths count their blessings and they realize life is precious. Former Blue Devils teammate Ashlie Padgett, Unicoi County’s Athlete of the Year in 2016, died from injuries sustained in an automobile accident shortly after graduation.
“I will always play for God,” Allee said, “and my angel in the outfield, Ashlie Padgett.”
Unicoi County provided Holly an ace in the late ’90s. Blue Devils alum Kristi Rose Hensley was invaluable for Holly’s Buffs at the turn of the century.
“Kristi pitched for me and did a tremendous job,” Holly said. “She’s been one of the premier pitchers we’ve had. And then we had (left fielder) Alicia Engle. Everybody called her ‘Smiley’ because she’s smiling all the time. She’s been one of most hustling kids I’ve ever had. We’ve had a great rapport with Unicoi girls, and they’ve done a good job for us.”