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SYLVAN HILLS SOFTBALL | Game rekindles connections

Justine Gladden’s final game in her first year as head coach of the Sylvan Hills Lady Bears was bittersweet, and it ended more bitter than sweet when the Lady Bears fell 12-5 to the Paragould Lady Rams in the second round of the 5A State tournament.

What could have possible been sweet about a seven-run loss in the state tournament?

There was a personal connection on the other side. Gladden has known Paragould shortstop Braxton Burnside since she was in elementary school.

That’s because Gladden played for Braxton’s mother Angie Burnside, who was an assistant at Williams Baptist College.

“Justine was a fierce competitor,” Angie Burnside said. “There wasn’t much that she couldn’t do as a player.”

Burnside said that Gladden was the only player that she ever offered a scholarship to without ever seeing her play.

Burnside delightfully recalled the day she met Gladden.

“I was at Jacksonville signing a volleyball player,” Burnside said, “and she walked up to me and shook my hand and said ‘I want to play softball for you’. I admired her confidence.”

Burnside said when they shook hands she noticed that Gladden’s right arm muscle bulged out.

“I called my husband and told him I think I found a stud softball player,” Burnside said.

Gladden didn’t disappoint committing just one error as an outfielder in her four-year career, plus Burnside called her “a tough out at the plate” prompting her former college coach to compare to any athlete on the USA women’s team.

“She made some unbelievable catches in the outfield, and made the most unbelievable catches,” Burnside said, “robbing people of hits. Any D1 college would have loved to have her.”

Braxton Burnside showed Gladden a glimpse of her former self, hitting a three-run homer in the fifth inning that put Paragould up 4-2, a lead they wouldn’t lose.

“I’ve known her since she was four,” Gladden said of Paragould’s young hitter. “Watching how much she has grown as an athlete and is a growing young lady.”

Gladden said she tears when she reunited before the game.

“I about cried when I hugged her and Angie,” Gladden said, “and when I finally met the newest addition, Brylee.”

Gladden said it was like reuniting with family, but she also knew that once the first pitch was thrown, competition took over.

When it was over, Gladden and the Burnsides were still family.

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