MECHANICSVILLE – Haleigh Cottrell was a big part of Lee-Davis’ first state championship softball team.

She called the pitches, ran the defense, and provided a hefty part of the team’s offense.

So, when she enrolled at George Mason University in the fall of 2013, she hoped to continue playing at the next level. No such luck.

“The coach told me I probably wouldn’t play for three years,” Cottrell said.

Cottrell, used to analyzing probabilities from behind the plate, decided the odds of a college athletic career at George Mason weren’t in her favor. And she wanted to complete her education at the school. She quickly bored into her studies and, after another career-changing audible, graduated in 2017 with a degree in criminal justice.

She’s now a police officer in Chattanooga, Tennessee. And she loves it.

Nevertheless, just as Cottrell hoped to play softball for George Mason, she also had planned to become a nurse. But she found a major obstacle to doing that, too, in her freshman year.

“I hated the pre-reqs,” she said.

She gave some thought to what to do instead. She had participated in ride-alongs with Hanover County sheriff’s deputies. She had been intrigued with law enforcement since. So, the decision on whether to switch her major and career goals was an easy one to make.

Furthermore, she landed an internship with the George Mason University police working security. That enabled her to build professional experience in law enforcement along with the academic background in criminology.

With good grades, and several years of experience under her belt as she approached her graduation in 2017, Cottrell was in a good position to land a job afterward.

“I applied to the Hanover County Sheriff’s Department and to Chattanooga,” Cottrell said. “Chattanooga is a lot different than Hanover. It’s more of a big city, with big-city problems.”

That difference tilted her interest level toward Chattanooga, and when she got the offer to join up, she didn’t hesitate. She went through the city’s six-month police academy program and began her career as a police officer.

The university and academy experience were quite different.

“My undergraduate experience at GMU was mostly learning law, the history of criminal justice, and mostly about the criminal justice system as a whole,” Cottrell said. “Police academy is more hands on experience, such as defensive tactics, driving skills, physical fitness, report writing and other day to day things that police officers do. Having a degree in a related field allowed me to have an idea of the classroom aspect of police academy and I’d say I definitely had an advantage on my classmates due to the fact I knew a lot of what we learned prior to the academy.”

Cottrell wasn’t eased in to her law enforcement career after graduating the police academy, either. She was put on a beat in some of the city’s toughest neighborhoods. The experience did not faze her. The mental and physical strength developed via years of playing catcher yielded big dividends on the streets.

Cottrell has run into her share of rough situations. She has been called plenty of names one would not want to repeat to their mother. But she has handled it all with the poise one would expect of a person well-schooled in bringing people together to work toward a common goal.

That skill did not come by accident. She began to acquire it on the Lee-Davis softball diamond.

“When I was a sophomore, Coach [Jackie] Davis sent me to a leadership academy,” Cottrell said. “She said I was going to lead the team the next three years and needed to be ready.”

The responsibilities of a catcher – knowing what pitches to call, taking in the entire field, anticipating plays the opposing team may run or what a batter may try to do with the next pitch and guiding the defense – and her success as a student carried over to policing, where knowledge, situational awareness and diplomacy are keys to staying safe, preventing problems and easing tensions on the street.

“Sports pushed me to succeed in the classroom. I knew maintaining A’s and B’s allowed me to play sports, so those went hand in hand,” she said. “My athletic experience allowed me to become a leader off the field at the time and even currently as a police officer. Being a catcher, leadership is critical to the success of the team. You’re the only person on the field that can see everything at once. Being a police officer, you have to be able to observe all aspects of every call.”

The team-building aspect of being a catcher has been especially useful to Cottrell’s law enforcement career. Chattanooga is one of many jurisdictions implementing community policing as a way to improve relations with the public. On the day of the interview, she had been doing a bit of that.

“My athletic ability … allows me to get out and play football or basketball with neighborhood kids every now and again, which is one of my favorite parts of the job,” she said. “I really enjoy working with kids.”

The efforts do pay off.

“I’ve been in some tough situations where people don’t want to cooperate, then someone comes up and says, ‘I know her. She’s cool,’” Cottrell said.

When that happens, the suspicion level drops and cooperation begins.

Her athletic experience pays off in other ways, too.

“My athletic ability has allowed me to stay in shape in my adult life. Had I not played sports my entire life, I wouldn’t have made it through the police academy. It was hands down the hardest thing I’ve ever done in my life,” Cottrell said. “Physical fitness is a huge part of my job, and citizens take you more seriously if you’re in shape, especially being a female cop.”

Cottrell is in her third year of patrolling the streets of Chattanooga. Her leadership skills are in evidence. As one of the more experienced officers on her beat, many younger officers approach her for guidance.

As much as she enjoys patrolling her beat, Cottrell is not content to get comfortable. She will soon become eligible to apply for a promotion to investigator. She would like to be a part of the city’s gang unit. But she doesn’t want to stop there.

“I’d like to become an investigator for the TBI – the Tennessee Bureau of Investigation,” she said.

Dave Lawrence can be reached at dlawrence@mechlocal.com.

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