Back in 2018, The JRF Panthers softball team was featured in the National Softball Magazine. They weren't featured in the magazine because of championships they won but rather to tell the world what made the JRF Panthers unique from many other teams across country. They were featured in the magazine due to the nostalgia that surrounds the team.
As mentioned in that article, "In a sport, where many players hop from team to team in search of a better team or playing time opportunities, that is not the case with the JRF Panthers." Those were the magazine's words not mine. But it is true, in slow-pitch softball a lot of players team hop, but that was never the case with JRF until recently. Back in 2009, the team went 0-32 and up until 2014 never won more than 12 games in a regular season, still year after year the same players kept showing up and stuck together. They improved their skills and added on to the core group to try to be better. This is what ultimately lead JRF to a 2nd place finish in 2019.
After 2019, things started to change. Now that the team was winning, a lot of people wanted to join the team, and everybody thought they had a guy who could help put the team over the top and finish first. This ultimately led to 10-12 new people showing up to the team which ended up being way too many. It created chemistry issues and a lot of different opinions on what people thought was best for the team. Unfortunately, 2020 and 2021 ended up with 2 disappointing 4th place finishes which never matched the talent on the team.
While the new guys were good people, they never understood what the culture of JRF was about it or what made it unique. The core of this team is not made-up of players who are on the team because it wins championships, or because they can't find playing opportunities on other teams. In fact, it is the exact opposite. JRF has yet to win a championship and the team's top 4-5 players year after year are recruited to play for other teams such as Crushers or Keith Kemp where they had a better chance of winning a championship but at the end of the day, they still stay with the JRF Panthers. Why? Because when you play for the JRF Panthers you play for them because of the name and logo on the front of the jersey and what it stands for such as friendship, brotherhood, and loyalty. It represents a bunch of guys, most of whom graduated from Exeter that just battle and don't give up on one another no matter how hard the season gets. It is not about playing time but it's about doing whatever is best for the team.
That JRF culture was missing the past two seasons due to the influx of too many new guys that didn't understand the culture and it had its consequences right before the 2022 season started. Right before this season started, two players decided not to come back, 2 players decided to leave to join Crushers, one left to join Gorillas in the Mist and one player in particular who had been with the team since 2009 got upset and cried to start his own team which was KNB and took 5 other JRF players with him. The thought was his new team would be better than JRF this season and he would play more. Neither of these things ended up being true as JRF eliminated them in the playoffs on Saturday but that's beside the point.
The point is all these departures left a team that at one point had too many people on it to become a team that barely had enough to put 10 guys on the field some nights. A couple times the team had to ask a player's girlfriend/wife to catch and be the 10th person so they could field a full team. However sometimes everything happens for a reason and ends up being a blessing in disguise. They say what doesn't kill you makes you stronger and that was the case. Because the team this year while short on players and not as talented as the top teams in the league, they brought back the JRF culture that was missing. All the players on the team, were people that wanted to be on the team win or lose. They weren't there because it was a championship loaded roster or it's the only team, they could get playing time on, they were there because this was THEIR team, and they wouldn't want to play for any other team just like it was in the older days. It was a group of guys no matter win or lose, they just battled and rarely ever argued. It was a bunch of team players that won and lost as a team. It was a team that due to everything that happened had an "Us against the world" mentality. People had a chip on their shoulder because they felt disrespected by the people that decided to leave. And honestly, despite the record it was the most fun I had playing softball in a long time.
JRF is back and for the first time I am excited about the future. We have our core guys who buy into the culture. Now we just need to add to the supporting cast but unlike the last two years we won't add too much, It will be a more careful approach. Here's to the 2023 season!