With the COVID-19 pandemic circulating throughout the United States, business as usual has halted in nearly every community.

During these trying times, people start appreciating the little things. Junior Hailey Jones of the LaGrange College softball team, a 2017 Dalton High School graduate, has learned a great deal over the last few weeks and plans on implementing these lessons into the future.

"I have learned that softball is a game and eventually it is going to have to end," said Jones. "The relationships and memories with my teammates and coaches are forever. Softball has held such a big part of my heart for so long and it has taught me so many life lessons. This pandemic is something that I never dealt with before, so I plan to take it as a learning experience and grow from it."

When it comes to growing into a new role, no one on the Panthers (7-5, 2-0 USA South) did that better than Jones during the 2020 season. Head coach Jennifer Claybrook awarded Jones a great deal of playing time. The right-fielder showed appreciation, taking advantage of every minute on the field.

After only playing in three games as a sophomore, Jones came into her junior campaign ready to help the team in any facet. The well-rounded student-athlete appeared in 10 games, finishing with a .375 batting average. She ranked first on the team in on-base percentage (.543) and third in slugging percentage (.583). She demonstrated great plate discipline, earning a team-high 10 walks, to go along with nine hits, nine runs and eight RBIs.

The Dalton native blasted her first-collegiate home run against Greensboro on Feb. 29. Jones came through in 2019 during a 5-3 win against Huntingdon in game 2 of a best-of-three, first-round playoff series in the USA South Tournament. She recorded the game-winning, two-run double, forcing the final game.

"That hit will forever be my favorite memory of my sophomore year," said Jones. "I did not play many games and when I did, I was usually only called upon to hit. This was my underdog moment, which showed my coach and teammates that I can produce in tough situations."

Jones took part in a Q&A segment, speaking about the seniors and the team's chemistry.

Q: How are you enjoying online learning?

A: It is an adjustment, but some things are out of our control. I prefer being in class because I am more of a hands-on learner. My teachers are very supportive and helpful when it comes to assignments or questions.

Q: Without any softball, what are you focusing on?

A: Emotionally, I feel kind of empty without softball right now, so I am trying to focus on keeping my grades up and spending time with my family. I asked some of our trainers for a workout schedule that I could do a few times a week to keep me in shape.

Q: Could you talk about the four seniors?

A: Riley Densmore was consistent last year with big hits when we needed them, but she took it to a new level this year. I think everyone can agree that McKenzie Brunel was one of the hardest workers on the team. When something needed to be said or done, she was the first one to do it. Taylor Long has always been the player to make the diving play, steal the next base or get on base in clutch moments, but we never heard a prideful word come out of her mouth. Lauren DeLoach has so much fight and loves the game of softball. She was the fire under our team.

Q: Emsley and Elizabeth Smith will also be graduating this year. Could you same some words about them?

A: Emsley and her sister, Elizabeth, were like two peas in a pod, but I noticed that Emsley was never afraid to speak her mind. Elizabeth has been the girl to push me in right field to become better every single practice. She is quiet, but funny once you finally get her to be open with you.

Q: What did these six student-athletes mean to the program?

A: All six brought great leadership qualities to the table. They were phenomenal athletes and I hope they all consider the possibility of coming back next season. They are the foundation that this team was built on and these women have been there for me when I needed them. I cannot wait to see where life takes them because they are all smart and hardworking.

Q: What were the keys to your dramatic improvement from sophomore to junior year?

A: The key difference was how serious I took offseason workouts. We trained three times a week, and I made it a point to be at every lift and put all my focus into the lift sessions. A great deal of the credit should go to our Sport Performance Enhancement, Education and Development (SPEED) Center trainers, but also my fellow teammates for holding each other accountable.

Q: Could you talk about the ways in which the softball program is a tight-knit family?

A: The reason that our team has great chemistry is because every player brings a positive attitude during the offseason and regular season. We had some younger girls fully buy into our program early in the season and the older girls took the lead when it was necessary. Coach Claybrook does a great job of encouraging activities outside of softball for everyone to attend. The things that I love about our team are how loving and supportive we are of one another. It is not the team with the most talent that wins games, but the group with the most heart and passion. As far as I am concerned, that is us.

Q: What have you been doing to stay entertained in your free time?

A: I do not have much free time with a full course load, but it is nice to be home and enjoy some quality time with my two dogs. It is tough to adjust to being confined to the house because I have always enjoyed being outside and spending time with my friends.

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