How Gilbert and the Sulphur Bulldogs reached new heights

SULPHUR — It's almost evening time in the Arbuckles. The crickets haven't come out to chirp yet, but the shadows on the horizon are beginning to lengthen.

Things are quiet at the Sulphur softball complex, at least for now. About two hours ago, the members of the 2012 Lady Bulldogs finished up their final home practice of the year.

For two of them, outfielder Katie Jones and pitcher Sierra McCurry, it will be the final time they take that field.

"It makes me want to cry," Jones said. "It's a little upsetting. But I don't cry."

You can hardly blame the girls for getting emotional; their final game on this field was a 9-5 victory over Plainview that completed a three-game rally to earn the first fastpitch softball state tournament appearance in program history.

It was all part of a banner season for the Bulldogs, who won 30 games and a Lake Country Conference regular season championship as part of a hugely successful debut for coach Heath Gilbert.

Gilbert stays now at the field, lingering in the dugout. It's just himself and his assistant coach Woody Haigood left.
Gilbert is never at a loss for words, and even after a long day of school and practice, he still has plenty left to teach.

Like the story of the small, decrepit horseshoe that now hangs from his dugout. Gilbert unearthed it near the third base line while working on the field, and hung it in the team's dugout for luck two days before his team's regional.

"There used to be a guy who owned horses on some property here, about 50 or 60 years ago." Gilbert said. "I bet it's from that."

Gilbert knows the history of this place. It is his home, the place he loves honestly and passionately. Like many members of the school's athletic staff, Gilbert once played for football coach Jim Dixon, and walked the same halls his daughter now walks.

"At first, when I left here after school, I didn't want to come back," Gilbert said. "I didn't want to have to be the coach of all my friends' kids. I didn't want to have to coach my daughter because that isn't always the perfect situation."

Nevertheless, the tug of home was too much for Gilbert. He returned to Sulphur as a junior high coach, before opportunities this past offseason catapulted him into the opportunity to be the varsity head coach.

It was the fifth coach the team had utilized in four years, and Jones was one of several players who was initially skeptical of what Gilbert would bring to the table.

"At the time, I honestly didn't think it was different," Jones said. "I just thought he was the next one up because that was the way things had been.

"But then he started working with us, showing us how things could be done differently. It was a revelation."

Harlee Griffis, the team's leadoff batter, can see the love and affection Gilbert has for not only his team, but the school and colors they represent.

"You can tell how much he cares, and how much he wants the program to be good." Griffis said.

It has set the stage for great things to happen in Sulphur's future, regardless of what outcome awaits the Bulldogs when the squad takes on Washington today at 11 a.m. in Oklahoma City. Win, loss or draw, Sulphur has reached new heights, and all with a team that contains just two seniors and a coach that has no intention of going anywhere.

"It's been God-sent," Gilbert said. "To be able to come home, to coach my daughter and help my school reach a milestone ... that's all a guy like me could ask for."

His school had no problem returning the favor. On Wednesday, every child in the school system, along with the faculty and staff of Sulphur, gathered to give well wishes to the team. Jones delivered a speech that she had rehearsed a thousand times, while McCurry could do little but smile in an almost sheepish way.

Even though she will leave as perhaps the top pitcher in school history, with the reputation of the hurler who pushed her team into the town's history books, it is what will come from this team's success that has McCurry giggling.

"I feel like more people are going to stick with the sport and what has been accomplished here can become a standard," McCurry said. "Knowing that Coach Gilbert is going to be here for a while helps that, and it shows that this program is here to stay."

Spencer White