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Softball star Brantley Mack voted into Hall of Fame

Softball star Brantley Mack voted into Hall of Fame

By DAVID HAYS
Lander Sports Information

GREENWOOD – Over the past decade, Brantley Mack has made a name for herself in the Jacksonville, Fla., area as one of the best women's professional football quarterbacks around. But she was a star in another sport first and got to relive her glorious softball past this weekend when she was inducted into the Lander Athletics Hall of Fame.

"I am thoroughly excited," Mack said earlier in the week as she looked forward to visiting her alma mater.

"It's such a great honor to even be nominated (to the Hall of Fame) and to actually get inducted when there are so few people who get this honor, it's pretty amazing," said Mack, who played at Lander from 1996-99.

"It's kind of unbelievable."

Mack was inducted into the Lander Athletics Hall of Fame along with her softball coach, Doug Spears, and men's basketball player Geoff Brower.

Mack is one of the best players to ever put on a softball uniform not only at Lander, but in the entire Peach Belt Conference.

The outfielder from Newberry, S.C., was a two-time All-American, a four-time All-Region player, 1996 Peach Belt Conference Rookie of the Year, and a four-time All-Peach Belt selection. She received team MVP honors three times and was the 1997 Lander Female Athlete of the Year.

Mack still holds the PBC record for hits in a career (338) and doubles in a career (69), and is second in career batting average (.433). She holds the Lander single-season record for total bases (145) and school career records for runs scored (233), hits (338), doubles (69), total bases (502), and at bats (765). She also hit 27 homers in her career, fourth in school history.

"It really blew me away that the records are still there," said Mack, whose No. 33 uniform number is retired at Lander. "Athletes today are bigger, stronger and faster and with the advanced (training) technology, I just knew that my records from back then would not still be standing today. It's still nice to hold those records."

Mack said she has fond memories of Lander because of its "small-town atmosphere, the family-oriented school, and the close friendships whether it be teammates, or faculty or staff. It was an overall great college atmosphere. I just have so many memories to look back on."

Mack was heavily recruited out of Newberry High School and went on official visits to Winthrop, USC Spartanburg (now USC Upstate) and Augusta State. But she chose to stay closer to home.

"When I was in high school, my sister (Bridget Mack Fallis) attended Lander for a year, and I started going to softball camps during the summer with Dee Garner as the pitching coach because I was a pitcher in high school," Mack said.

"I played travel ball also, but my main link to Lander was through the summer camp. Coach Spears watched me play some travel ball. I went on visits to other schools, but something clicked with Lander, and it was close enough to home for my family to watch because they were very much a part of my whole softball career. It was just the right fit and it was good for my family too."

After a big freshman year in which she hit .466, Mack had offers to transfer to other schools. But she resisted the temptation and "I am glad that I made that decision," she said.

Spears is thankful too.

"She was the best athlete that I ever coached," Spears said. "She had the most natural ability. I saw her playing for a very good summer team and I thought, 'wow, what a player.' I said that I am going to get her at Lander. Some of the other coaches around me thought, 'yea, right.' I just recruited her hard and got lucky, and she made life a lot easier for me for four years."

Spears said Mack was a student of the game and had a will to win.

"The first year I noticed that when she struck out, she would hustle back to the dugout and stare at the pitcher, like she was in deep thought," the coach said. "But what she was doing was cataloging in her mind how that pitcher got her out. 'Did she get me out on a drop ball? Did she start me out with a rise ball?' So when Brantley came back up, that pitcher had better not follow that same sequence."

The Lady Senators, as they were known then, went 151-75 during Mack's four years there, and she played a big part in those victories.

"Brantley Mack was one who loved to have the bat in her hand when the game was on the line," Spears said. "More often than not, she was going to hurt that other team."

After college, the Lander physical education major followed a friend who was relocated to Jacksonville and that launched a career on a different playing field.

"I came down to visit a few times in the summer and kind of fell in love with the city," Mack said. "I grew up in (small town) Newberry and Greenwood was a step up (in size). I just kind of wanted to branch out.

"I love hot weather. Jacksonville has a lot to offer with beaches, and a pro football team. It's big, but it's not like an Atlanta which is congested all the time. It felt like a good move. After I came down, about five other of my friends moved down here also."

The obvious transition for a women's college sports star is recreational sports. But Mack wanted more, and the Jacksonville Dixie Blues provided the spark.

"When I moved here, I got involved in recreational leagues. There is not a lot after college for women to do competitively. When you transition from playing college softball, which is very competitive, you then go into a rec league where it is more of a good time. You still want to win, but it's more for fun. But I was yearning for something more.

"A friend of mine that I had played softball with here mentioned to me that there was going to be a football team starting up and asked me if I would like to try out. I grew up playing with my brothers and neighborhood boys, throwing the football around. But I told her 'I really have no idea what I'm doing.' She said, 'that's okay.'"

The Dixie Blues debuted in 2001 and have played in various women's professional tackle football leagues every year but 2003 and 2008. They won league championships in 2002, 2006 and 2007, and were undefeated in 2009 before losing in the semifinals of the playoffs.

And Mack has been with them every step of the way until this season.

She said what women's professional football teams look for are athletes, and they found a good one in Mack, who says she can throw a football 45-50 yards.

"Women don't grow up playing Pop Warner. There is no feeder system for this league. All they are looking for is athletes who can learn the game and their positions," said Mack, who works full-time for Merrill Lynch in the corporate actions division. "They will teach you everything you need to know. I was like, 'okay, I'll come out.'

"I'm not a petite little girl. I have an athletic build and I decided to try out at fullback. After the first couple of tryouts, they moved me into the quarterback position to see how I would do and it ended up my starting position and I played it for nine years."

Lander has provided a pipeline of players for the Dixie Blues, including current roster members Erin Hopper and former Lady Senators softball players Jennifer Dickert, Jessie Pomeroy and Kathryn (Kat) Price.

"It's a small circle and we all had a great time in college together," said Mack, who was teammates at Lander with Pomeroy and Price. "Everybody had the same idea about trying the big city. My first thing was to recruit them to play because I knew what good athletes they were. They take all shapes and sizes to play football."

Mack is taking this season off after having knee surgery last August. But she hopes to return.

"I knew I wouldn't be in good enough shape for my standards, and would not be able to train in the off-season, and I was starting a new position at work that was going to require me to travel. I just didn't feel like I would be able to commit the time needed to play this sport. So I decided to take this season off.

"I would like to play again next season if it works out. I guess it will be a game-time decision."

The women play for the love of the game. The Dixie Blues are a not-for-profit organization. The only money that the team and players receive is through sponsorships and ticket sales, which help the players pay for their equipment.

"The majority if not all of us are working women with full-time jobs," said Mack, who was head softball coach at Tim Tebow's high school in the Jacksonville area in 2007 before returning to Merrill Lynch. "Many of the players have children and families at home. It's a huge commitment."

The Dixie Blues have traditionally been a high-scoring team with Mack under center for much of the past decade.

"We had a really good receiver who could really burn it down the sidelines. It was never a fear of overthrowing her because she could go get it. We ran option a lot. We had some really good backs. We could do a lot of options, reads, pitches, and do some play-action off that to get our passing game going. We had a lot of weapons."

They have a tight end named Farrah Faucette, who works for the St. John's County Sheriff's Department. Born at the height of the original Farrah Fawcett's popularity, she always said, 'my name is Farrah Faucette, I swear,'" Mack said, with a laugh.

But women's professional football is no laughing matter and Mack said once people see how they play, they are impressed.

"The first thing they always say is 'you guys are playing for real. You are really hitting hard and you understand the game,'" Mack said. "We execute a lot of good plays. I think they are amazed after the first time and then usually they are hooked."

The fan support is good in Jacksonville, more so than in other cities, she said.

"We are lucky in Jacksonville. We have a huge crowd that is pretty loyal at our home games. We will consistently have 450, 500 people. We have a charity game each year called the 'Pink Game.' We wear all-pink uniforms and we raise money for breast cancer. That's part of our community involvement. Those games will have a thousand people. For women's sports, that's a lot. When we go on the road, most of the time it's just friends and family that go to the games. We just don't have the money to market ourselves."

Mack said the foundation for her football success came from softball and her career at Lander.

"I had a pretty good arm in college, being able to throw a lot of people out at home," she said. "That natural ability to throw long distances kind of transferred a little bit to football."

On Saturday, she was inducted into the Hall of Fame with long-time friend, coach and mentor Coach Spears.

"He is one of those iconic legends," Mack said of Spears, who retired after the 2005 season with 803 career victories. "You don't ever want to go to a program where there is turnover, especially if there is turnover within your career. You get used to how someone coaches, and that's always nice to have that sustaining figure there."

Mack was comfortable with Spears' laid-back approach.

"I always liked his style of coaching. He was never one to yell at you or get mad or upset or put a lot of pressure on you," Mack said. "For someone like myself, I needed that. I was my own worst critic. I could go 4-for-4 and not make an error, and I could still find something that I didn't do right.

"His coaching style and my playing style were a perfect match. I think the world of him as a coach and as an individual. Being together for four years, you get to know each other like family. He was a friend of my family's for sure."

Accompanying Mack at her induction were her parents Lenny and Lynda Mack, brother Brian Hawkins, sister Bridget Mack Fallis, niece Alexa Fallis, travel ball coaches Ed and Kaki Hancock, aunt and uncle Tony and Carol Collier, family friends Butch and Judy Cobb and their daughter Jamie Cobb, a former roommate and Lander softball teammate.