OXFORD – Each time a player on the Holy Spirit Catholic softball state championship team sees a black Ford F-150 pickup truck, she will have vivid memories.
In January, the Saints visited the True Vine Foundation in Eutaw, Alabama, for a preseason team-bonding retreat ahead of the 2022 season. At least, that's what they thought.
Holy Spirit had made the previous two state tournaments but went a combined 1-4.
On Saturday, the Saints (39-10) defeated Skyline 3-1 Saturday to win the AHSAA 1A title, the program's first.
During that retreat, Saints coach Jeff Laubenthal, who is retiring, enrolled his team in the Character Development Course that "focuses on communication, mental toughness, teamwork and leadership."
What team with state aspirations says no to that?
True Vine's website says the course is mentally and physically taxing and designed to test resiliency. Holy Spirit didn't know it would be its hardest test of the season.
STATE CHAMPIONS: How Holy Spirit softball won first AHSAA state championship
AHSAA STATE SOFTBALL: State tournament championship results for Alabama high school teams
"We thought we were going in for some rope courses and fun team-bonding," state tournament MVP and UAB commit Alyssa Faircloth said. "Then these military people show up, and we pulled this truck with its brakes on down an airstrip. It was hard.
"We thought we were over, then they made us hop in boats that were sinking and in freezing cold water. There's gunshots going off. (Laubenthal) was questioning it in the middle of it, but that was definitely what brought us closer."
The most demanding mission was when the Saints had to pull a Ford F150 down an airplane landing strip. Each player pulled a rope, and they started slow.
Things got going when first baseman Marianna Sellers had the idea to make a 180-degree turn and begin pulling facing the front of the truck so the team wouldn't see how much farther they had to go until the end of the runway.
While carrying sandbags, sophomore Charli Kyser sought out seventh graders and grabbed their sacks to help the team finish faster.
"They had a moment at the end of that runway when they pulled that truck down there where they all just kind of sighed and collapsed," Laubenthal said. "That's when I knew we had a good team."
Holy Spirit allowed only two runs in four games at the state championships. Faircloth pitched three complete games, didn't allow any earned runs and capped her dominance with 10 strikeouts against Skyline (31-18).
The Saints outscored its state opponents 19-1. Skyline's lone run came in the sixth inning, and it had a runner on third base with two outs. Holy Spirit didn't panic and got the third out.
"I felt like (the retreat) helped us because we all went through that together," Kyser said. "It was painful but it was really meaningful to all of us that we worked hard together and got through it."
Jerell Rushin is a recruiting reporter for the Tuscaloosa News and the USA TODAY Network. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org and follow him on Twitter at @JerellRushin_.
This article originally appeared on The Tuscaloosa News: AHSAA softball championship: Holy Spirit title won with a Ford truck