The Midlothian Lady Panthers softball program has never had a true home field. The Panthers have known no other for quite some time.
That all changed Friday night with the snip of a ceremonial blue ribbon.
The Lady Panthers softball program first began play on the since-demolished field next to the then-Dairy Queen, which is now Hibachio on East Main Street. It featured loosely fitted chain link, rocks in the infield and an outfield fence measuring somewhere in the neighborhood of 180 feet from home plate.
They later moved to the newer city-owned fields north of Midlothian ISD Multipurpose Stadium. The relocation was a vast upgrade, sure, but still didn't quite feel right.
It was home, sure. But it wasn't their home.
Jim Norris, Midlothian ISD assistant superintendent for finance and operations, is one of six individuals on the district leadership team that is listed on district-issued design documents as being largely responsible for the design and execution of the new home field that opened Friday.
Shortly after underhand tossing the first strike on the new district softball field, Norris admitted he was shocked when a few Lady Panthers came into his office inside the MISD Administration Building to ask that he throw the first pitch Friday evening.
Norris explained that he has had a view of the project from the admin building since the first shovel hit the dirt, adding the opportunity to be a part of its opening is an honor he genuinely never dreamt was in his future.
He also admitted he’d spent a couple of days practicing for the first-pitch task. "It's not as easy as it looks," he added with a laugh.
“This is an absolutely awesome honor for me,” Norris said as he walked toward the opening day festivities at the baseball field, occasionally stopping to accept a few congratulations along the way. “I don't know a lot of kids because I'm in the business office, so for those girls to come over and ask me to do it, I was overwhelmed. I just thought, ‘why me?’ They all kept saying that I'd been here for a long time and seen all of it happen and it's been very exciting. My office sits over there, and I've watched this go up every day, so to get here is just exciting. It's exciting for MHS it really is.”
As for the Panthers: When they took the turf at Ronnie Clanton Field just a short walk from Lady Panthers Field, their long-time home sat perfectly manicured across the street. Decades of championship and playoff banners from yesteryear still proudly hung from its chain-link fences, and will most certainly and eventually make their way across Walter Stephenson Road to the pearl of a stadium the Panthers now call home.
Clanton himself was on hand to deliver the ceremonial first pitch. And it was the first pitch like very few have ever had the opportunity to throw.
Not only did Clanton deliver a strike that “any low-strike calling umpire would’ve liked,” but he did so on a field that bears his name. He laughed a hearty laugh when it was pointed out that most programs wait until someone has passed away before honoring him or her with a namesake memorial field.
He could not have been any more genuinely appreciative and humbled for the opportunity and honor, either.
“You know, it’s just that I can’t find the words. I am so humbled right now," Clanton said from the concourse behind the Panthers dugout. "A facility like this is something the whole district has been waiting on and it is a great honor for me to have my name up there. I didn't do any more than any of the other guys before me or after me but I'm glad for my kids (players) and the honor all about my kids and now it's all about the kids coming up and coach [Ray] Hydes]. I am just blessed. This is unbelievable.”
Clanton has spent the past 45 years working within Midlothian ISD. His career began in 1973 as a junior high football coach, as well as a basketball, golf and tennis coach, before taking over the Midlothian Panthers baseball program.
He won 236 games and four district championships over his 18-year tenure as Panthers skipper from 1977-93. Though his teams had seven playoff appearances, it was the trip to the 1982 state tournament that was the highlight to his coaching career.
Clanton eventually retired from coaching in 1993 after a little more than two decades, taught history for another 10 years and then accepted a gig as a groundskeeper in 2003, which allowed him to remain involved with athletics — specifically baseball.
Clanton and the 1982 Panthers baseball team were both inducted into the Midlothian ISD Hall of Honor as part of the 2015 class.
The Midlothian ISD Board of Trustees approved the naming of the baseball field during a regular meeting in June 2018.
Steve Keasler was largely responsible for the field bearing Clanton’s name. Keasler served as the district’s director of athletics at the time of the naming and has since moved into that same role with Carroll ISD.
He was on-hand Friday to soak in the festivities.
“We started talking about it in 2014 and began sending information out to our community, but the vision has been here for a long time,” Keasler said. “We have known that we wanted to bring softball back to campus. We also wanted to move baseball into the same complex and also knew that we wanted to also bring tennis back over here. The voters got behind it and I appreciate everyone trusting us. It’s good to see that now that vision has come true.”
He added, “The things that I think that Midlothian could be proud of is that every facility is first class and I think that there are a lot of people who believed in that and you just that was an important piece of this district. This is something that the community can be extremely proud of.”
The Lady Panther and Panthers both christened their new digs with victories against Ennis. It was a storybook evening for a picture-perfect facility and two well-deserving programs.
“I am very proud of these facilities,” Midlothian superintendent Dr. Lane Ledbetter said. “And I'm also proud that the community gets to watch their kids play here and that our kids have the opportunity to play at a facility like this. This is awesome for our community, students and parents and it’s going to be a great resource for us to have. We are very grateful for that and grateful that the community continues to allow us to build quality facilities for kids.”
Travis M. Smith, @Travis5mith