CHARLOTTESVILLE — They checked their reflections in the trophy case. Fixed their hair, their hats. Brushed the tassels away from their eyes.
Shining back at them through the glass were dozens of IHSAA logos, the products of Eastern Hancock athletic success over the school district’s history; prizes similar to the one Jordan Pierson and Darby Shaw are chasing.
This pair of senior girls won’t walk in their high school graduation Saturday. Each has chosen instead to take the field for the Royals semistate game against Henryville on Saturday at about the same time as their classmates will cross the commencement stage.
It was a tough decision, choosing to miss one high school milestone for another. But their classmates and teachers stepped in to make it a little easier. Friday afternoon — during what was originally scheduled to be a commencement practice — members of Eastern Hancock’s senior class dolled up, put on their caps and gowns and gave Jordan and Darby a graduation of their own.
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The valedictorian read her speech, the principal signaled for them to turn their tassels, and locking eyes and giggling together, Jordan and Darby tossed their caps into their air.
This pomp and circumstance was just for them.
“I’m very thankful they did this for us,” Jordan said, smiling with a wide smile after walking across the stage to roars of applause from her peers. “It means a lot.”
The team’s advancement through postseason play has come with a whirlwind of emotions for Jordan and Darby. They knew from the start that success on the field would lead to some tough decisions: do they walk with the friends they’ve shared classrooms with since elementary school, or do they pick up that softball bat, lace up their cleats and play in the game most high school athletes only dream about?
It was that first big what-do-to question that comes with adulthood, said Kristin Pierson, Jordan’s mother.
Mid-season, right when the team really started to mesh, Pierson realized she might not get the graduation-day pictures of her oldest daughter that she always thought she would. So she sat down with Jordan and started the discussion; she wanted her daughter to make the final call about which event to attend.
This week’s regional victory was when it all came to a head, Pierson said. The Class 2A No. 16 Royals clinched a 7-6 victory against Union County Tuesday, solidifying that the girls would face No. 1 Henryville at the same time as graduation.
“That became a rollercoaster really quickly,” Pierson said.
For Darby, the answer seemed obvious, her parents said.
Darby has been playing softball since she was 4 years old. Other sports, like volleyball and basketball, have speckled her childhood, but softball was always the focus. It’s her passion, and nothing come between her and that field, said Niel Shaw, Darby’s father.
“She’d put the team before herself,” he said. “She always has.”
Jordan was a bit more conflicted, teammate Kaysi Gilbert said. Inside the dugout after Tuesday night’s victory, still beaming from their success, Jordan admitted to the other players that she didn’t know what to do, that she didn’t want to disappoint anyone.
Then the school stepped in.
The school’s athletic director knew there was no way to work around game time, so Principal Dave Pfaff contacted the senior class, the softball coach and the girls’ parents about turning the commencement practice into a graduation ceremony for Jordan and Darby.
Athletic events have been scheduled for graduation day before, Pfaff said, and usually that student grabs their diploma first before flying out the door to compete. The drive to this year’s softball game near Ferdinand in southern Indiana wouldn’t allow for such an adjustment.
“But this is important, too,” Pfaff said of graduation.
The approximately 90 seniors in Eastern Hancock’s graduating class already knew to be at the school Friday morning for a quick run-through of the next day’s ceremony, and Pfaff put out a call for each to bring their cap and gown along.
Jordan and Darby are as much leaders in the classroom as they are on the softball field, Pfaff said: two well-behaved students who get good grades and have solid groups of friends.
“Nobody minded doing this for them,” he said.
The girls’ families and a handful of other parents spread out in the bleachers to watch, cameras at the ready, waiting to catch Jordan and Darby to walk across the stage.
The Royals softball team sat together, with poster-sized photographs of Jordan and Darby draped over a railing in front of them, and whooped as the girls who led them through the season got their shining moment.
Pierson said she is proud her daughter decided to follow her heart, choosing to back up her team — but prouder still the school community was willing to come together for two of its members.
They’ll have their own graduation memories to cherish, though whether the sacrifice was worth it is left to fate on the field.
“But I have a really good feeling,” Pierson said.