Palomino celebration

Diboll’s Kayla Palomino tries to pump up her team after her double during Thursday’s state final game in Austin. The Lady Jacks came up a game short in their historic title run, falling 11-5 to Rains at Red and Charline McCombs Field in Austin.

It was just over a year ago when Diboll head coach Hayland Hardy delivered the type of speech he probably never envisioned. It came shortly after the UIL’s decision to cancel the remainder of the softball season.

For anyone who has ever crossed paths with Hardy, he has a good way of putting things into perspective that is nearly unmatched. The basic point of his message was consoling players about the news while saying how they handled it would go much further than the softball field.

For some people, those words would be mere lip service. For those who know anything about Hardy’s story, they know he’s far more than a softball coach.

He’s an inspiration.

Long before he stepped onto the Diboll campus as a head softball coach, his name was no secret to fans of local sports.

He was a district MVP with the Lufkin Panthers and a record-setting home run hitter with SFA before becoming a member of the Brewers organization.

His career on the field came to an abrupt halt 24 years ago when he was diagnosed with pulmonary fibrosis, a progressive, terminal lung disease. Hardy was told he had six months to live.

Spoiler alert.

He outlived the diagnosis. That halt turned out to merely be a pause.

About a year later, he continued his coaching career with stops at Chapel Hill, Mineola and Quitman. His career then came back to the area where he spent his high school days in 2019 when he took the Diboll head coaching job.

His first year was a success as he helped build upon an already strong foundation by leading the Lady Jacks to the regional finals, the longest playoff trip for the softball team in school history.

However, as has been the case for much of his life, adversity hit once again.

That’s when the COVID-19 pandemic shut down the entire season. Plenty of teams and athletes felt like it was their year.

Not many had as good of a case as that year’s Lady Jacks. Returning most of their starters from the regional finalist team, Diboll opened the year with a 19-0-1 record and a Top 5 ranking.

The Lady Jacks were legitimate contenders.

On the field, it was a tough blow. Away from it, the pandemic was one Hardy had to take extra precautions with due to his medical condition.

Even then, his thoughts were never far away from helping his team.

“I don’t know if I could be there for any of it because I’ve got to listen to what my doctor says,” Hardy said in March. “For the sake of our seniors especially, I think there’s a way they could come together and find a way to let them finish it.”

At the time, and despite his own health concerns, he was working in an effort to recognize some of those seniors.

Despite those efforts, as well as the cancellation of the season, he still tested positive for COVID-19 in the fall, a tough diagnosis for someone with his condition.

Once again, Hardy got through it and was right there when the season began.

As the season got started, I touched base with him first about his health before asking about what the season had in store. It wasn’t a surprise that his own personal struggles weren’t at the front of his mind.

“God’s always had a plan for me so I know regardless what happens, I’m going to be OK,” Hardy said after one of the team’s non-district games. “Right now this isn’t about me. It’s all about the girls. They’re a special group and that goes beyond softball.”

As it turns out, he once again knew what he was talking about. Despite losing four key seniors from the 2020 team, they worked their way to a second consecutive district title.

The rest is history.

They dropped the first game of the playoffs before winning 10 straight games. The last victory landed the Lady Jacks in the state championship game.

As it turns out, a juggernaut of a team from Rains was there waiting. Rains had run-ruled Hallsville, a 5A state qualifier. They also had a list of wins over 6A teams. Their only loss was to a Class 6A playoff team.

They also were the defending state champions after claiming the Class 3A crown in 2019. The Lady Cats also were in the state tournament in 2018.

Hardy and Diboll gave it their all before eventually coming up short in the championship game.

Sometimes the ending isn’t exactly what one envisions.

But for Hardy and the Lady Jacks, it’s more of the end of a chapter instead of the end of a journey.

And the 2021 Lady Jacks took the school, town and their head coach on quite a ride.

For those keeping score, Diboll will return the bulk of its roster in hopes of chasing after the school’s first state title.

There will once again be plenty of obstacles along the way.

But for Hardy, obstacles are just another path to opportunities.

Softball fans across Texas know better than to count Hardy out.

And his Lady Jacks will be right there with him.

Josh Havard’s email address is josh.havard@lufkindailynews.com.