Liberty County (Florida) High School coach Jennifer Sewell is proof that sometimes your second act can be even better than your first.
Now in her 12th season at helm of her alma mater, Sewell previously was a standout catcher in high school. She went on to play collegiately at Chipola College, but sustained a torn labrum her freshman season.
Instead of feeling dejected, Sewell plotted out her plan to stay involved in the game by majoring in education at Florida State. After spending one season as a volunteer assistant at Liberty County, Sewell got the call up in 2006 to take over the team and took them to heights they’d never reached before.
In 2013, Liberty County rolled off 20 straight wins en route to capturing the school’s first-ever Class 1A state title.
Liberty County has been a perennial contender under Sewell’s guidance, most recently finishing as district runner-up in 2016.
Sewell feels fortunate to have had such success, and it’s even more satisfying to do it for her alma mater.
“It was great,” Sewell said about coaching back at her softball home. “When I was a student here as a Bulldog and being able to wear that jersey with that name across it was special. Coming back to my alma mater, it meant a lot. It made me want to bring pride back to it because I worked hard as an athlete. I just want to continue that as a coach and give Liberty County a good name which it has always had in athletics.”
While the titles have been rewarding, it’s nothing compared to seeing the progress of players. Sewell had one answer for what has been her most rewarding aspect of being a coach.
“Seeing your kids succeed,” Sewell said. “The year that we won states I had a group of kids that during their ninth grade year everybody predicted us to win state just because of their athletic ability. Seeing the girls working and buying into the system and seeing your team peak (is most rewarding).
“That senior class finished with 94 wins and 17 losses. We’re a small 1A high school but we were beating Chiles High School out of Tallahassee and other big schools the year we won state.”
Sewell preaches a team-first mentality, and achieving that means every player needs to put in the work and the time to get better. It’s a shared sacrifice that everyone has a role in.
“I always call my kids puzzle pieces,” Sewell said. “Everybody is a part of the puzzle. You’ve got to have every piece to be successful just like when you put a puzzle together. If you’re missing that one piece you aren’t going to be able to complete it.”
In 12 years, Sewell has seen the sport of softball change, just like any fan. But being on the coaching side of things, she’s noticed some marked differences from even a decade ago.
“I can tell you there’s a difference from when I first started coaching in 2006 until now. Priorities are a little bit different. I have a ninth grader that started this season. She’s actually my pitcher this year. She came to me the other day and said, ‘I see what you’re talking about when you say buying in. There’s some of us that aren’t buying in.’ It’s about them wanting to put in the extra work. As the years go on that I’ve coached, there’s not that many kids that you have that want to go out on a Saturday and work on hitting off a tee, especially when they don’t have to be out there.”
While Sewell can have a tough-nosed approach to encourage players to put that work in, at the end of the day, it all comes back to the level of care she has for her girls.
“If I’m crawling your tail and correcting you and getting on you it means that I want you to improve,” Sewell said. “I can see you’re not pushing yourself hard enough and I care.
“But whenever I don’t say anything or just turn the other way, that’s when I don’t care because I’ve given up on you.”