Northwest Whitfield High School’s softball team wrote the perfect ending to its 2012 season, winning the Class 4A state title in a dramatic extra-inning victory against Madison County.
But like everyone else, it’s time for the Lady Bruins to work on a new beginning — and they’ll do so without ace Emily Boyd, The Daily Citizen’s All-Area Softball Player of the Year the past four seasons, who has moved on to pitch for the University of Mississippi.
Dalton, Murray County and Southeast Whitfield were all scheduled to open their seasons Thursday at Model’s Lady Blue Devil Invitational — tournament organizers got special permission from the Georgia High School Association to begin play a day before the GHSA’s “official” earliest date for competition — and the rest of the area’s teams will all have begun play by early next week.
Here’s a glance at the varsity programs in Murray and Whitfield counties:
The Lady Lions start the season needing more wins and more players.
During its first season of GHSA competition, Christian Heritage went 6-17 overall and 4-6 in Sub-region 6A-A and missed the state playoffs. And just like last year, coach Mike Leonard’s team will be forced to improve on those numbers with a thin bench.
“Right now, we only have nine healthy bodies,” Leonard said earlier this week. “We have a really, really good core of freshmen coming in and we have five or six strong eighth-graders for next year, but that doesn’t help a lot right now. School isn’t open yet, so it makes it a little hard, but we are going to have to pick up a couple of players.”
First baseman Megan McKinney is the lone senior on the team, which has five freshmen on the roster. The team has just one junior, Micah Kilgore, and Leonard said McKinney will have to fill the leadership vacuum created by the graduation of the coach’s daughter, Rebecca Leonard, a member of The Daily Citizen’s All-Area Softball Team last year who signed with Samford.
In addition to her leadership contributions, there were plenty of statistical ones — she led the team in batting average (.426), on-base percentage (.576) and was also the winning pitcher in all six of the team’s wins.
“(McKinney) is going to have to be a leader because we are so young,” Leonard said. “I don’t think that they will come into this as freshmen and be intimidated, but they need a leader. She is going to have to step up and be a little more vocal. We know she will bring a great attitude, and we hope that will show for the team.”
With the low numbers and no depth at catcher — Haley Jones moved from her natural position at third base to behind the plate — the Lady Lions will have to play a little different style of ball.
“The biggest thing is that you can’t afford to take as many risks on the basepaths,” Leonard said. “Seventy-five percent of your injuries occur in the act of sliding. We will have to manage our team very smartly. We are going to take maybe a few less risks than other teams. We may not be able to do what we normally would do in a game. Those are the biggest challenges trying to maintain a healthy squad.”
Freshmen Erin Leonard and Hannah Heath will be the primary pitchers for the Lady Lions, with McKinney available for some spot duty as well.
Christian Heritage opens its season with a pair of games today at Harlem High School’s tournament, which continues on Saturday.
Solid pitching and defense should be considered a fast-pitch softball coach’s dream, especially in the debut season for the man in charge.
At Coahulla Creek, that man is first-year head coach Josh Swiney, who spent the past two years as an assistant and knows where the strengths lie for this year’s Lady Colts.
“We are blessed this year with three good pitchers who we are expecting big things from, along with two girls who are really solid behind the plate,” Swiney said.
As senior starting pitcher Shelbe Dilbeck goes, so will the Lady Colts. Dilbeck was a mainstay last season, collecting nine wins and an ERA of 3.05.
“She has been the workhorse of our pitching staff for the last two years,” Swiney said. “She is an awesome leader who just goes out there and plays. She’s a quiet leader with a relentless work ethic.”
That leadership, coupled with the arm of senior Erin Harden, who recently transferred from Christian Heritage, should give the Lady Colts a consistent one-two punch. Sophomore Nikki Hollis, a steady reliever last season, will round out the staff.
Starting at catcher is third-year starter Emily Banks, a junior who led the team in hitting the past two seasons, posting a .354 average with five doubles and 16 RBIs last year. Freshman Sydney Ross will also see time behind the plate and provides a strong arm and defensive presence in reserve, Swiney said.
Three-year starters LaSha Hedden and Kala Franks, along with senior first baseman Allie Thompson — who had the team’s only home run last season and was second in RBIs with 15 — will round out the infield. Senior outfielder Haley Reece, who hit .303 last season, provides speed and a good arm, Swiney said.
Coahulla Creek, which went 11-18 in 2012 under Rhett Parrott’s guidance, enters its third year of competition looking for its first trip to state. The team opens the season at home against Northwest at 5:55 p.m. on Monday.
“They give me everything they’ve got in everything they do,” Swiney said. “It has been amazing to watch them give that effort, whether it be in batting practice, baserunning drills or taking infield. As a coach, I cannot ask for more than that.”
Stacy Parker, who is entering his first season as coach, knew the Lady Catamounts would be young this year.
He didn’t think they would be this young.
Parker, who has previously assisted with baseball and football at Dalton, hadn’t expected starting senior shortstop Destinee Woods to tear an anterior cruciate ligament at a basketball camp at Clemson University in June.
“Now I’ve got one senior — starting right fielder Eternity Goodman,” said Parker, who took over the program when Jeff McKinney stepped down after one season to become the school’s athletic director.
Three juniors, five sophomores and eight freshmen round out the roster.
“We scrimmaged Murray County, a really good hitting team, on Monday and four freshmen started,” Parker said. “That’s how young we are.”
Those four newcomers were Gabby Wright (center field), Haley Ledwell (second base), Katy Buckner (shortstop) and Alli Swinford (pitcher). The Lady Cats won, 9-8, with two runs in the eighth inning after the game went to international tiebreaker rules.
Swinford and Buckner combined to go 4-for-6 with three RBIs in the preseason tuneup. Third baseman Christen Pender, a junior, went 3-for-4 with a double, triple and four RBIs.
Other scrimmage starters were left fielder Blayne Thomason, a sophomore, first baseman Kerri McKeehan, another sophomore — junior Kylee Harris is battling for playing time at the position — and junior Hannah Jones, who was at catcher.
Freshman Melissa Carlisi will pitch and classmate Kianna Adams is proving to be a solid flex player for the Lady Cats, who overcame sub-par regular seasons to reach the state playoffs the past two years.
“We’re in one of the toughest softball sub-regions (7B-4A) in the state with Northwest Whitfield, Heritage-Catoosa, LaFayette, Southeast Whitfield and Ridgeland,” Parker said. “With so many young players, we don’t know what to expect.”
Sarah Hughes, the wife of former Dalton High golfer Matt Hughes, is Parker’s pitching coach — she pitched at Mississippi State — and Brandon Sane will handle the defense.
“I’m excited about the season,” Parker said. “Our girls are dedicated and they want to win.”
A heartbreaking end to last season is being counted on as motivation this year for the Lady Indians, who lost 1-0 to Pepperell in the Region 7-2A tournament when a win would have clinched one of the league’s four berths in the Class 2A state playoffs.
“We still have a sour taste in our mouths,” said Murray County coach Sandra Johnston, a 1985 graduate of the school who enters her fifth season as coach still looking for her first postseason appearance.
Murray County’s bid for a state berth comes against region competition that includes perennial power Calhoun and 2012 champion Dade County. This year, 7-2A will not be divided into sub-regions and the Lady Indians will play a full region schedule.
The revenge-minded Lady Indians, who went 13-14 in 2012, return seven starters from last year’s roster.
“We have a lot of experience,” Johnston said. “We return some excellent players.”
Lindsey Dunn and Whitney Gribble, both sophomore right-handers, will share duties in the circle.
“We feel good about our pitching,” Johnston said. “They’re both solid pitchers.”
When not pitching, Dunn or Gribble will be at second base.
“I also feel good about our hitting,” Johnston said. “We have some players who can really hit.”
Junior shortstop Shea Pendley, sophomore catcher Aubrie Osborne and junior third baseman Ashlee Strong are expected to lead the hitters. Caitlyn Sims, the Lady Indians’ lone senior, is at first base.
Pendley earned all-area honors last season after she hit .425 — she collected 14 extra-base hits — and compiled a .516 on-base percentage. She also stole 20 bases, scored 27 runs and drove in 38.
Experience in the outfield comes from juniors Ariel Smith and Cassidy Callahan and sophomores LeAnn Bunch and Ashley Harrison. They are joined by freshmen Kimberly Roberts, Ashlyn Sims and Lindsey Waldroop.
The Lady Mountaineers have made the state playoffs each of the past two seasons but have been short of being one of the final eight teams that advance to the state tournament in Columbus.
It’s a situation that has left them with a clear goal.
North Murray has a new coach as Steve Granger — he’s a former assistant for softball and led the school’s baseball program before stepping down after the season — takes over, but seven starters return to the lineup. That group includes seniors Kara Deal, a pitcher, Samantha Stafford, who’s behind the plate, and outfielder Sarah Silvers. The rest of the infield is made up of juniors who are also returning starters — Amber Bandy at first base, Kaitlyn Epps at second, Baylee Sutton at shortstop and Megan Pittman at third.
“Especially with us finishing third in the region and qualifying for state, returning that many players will be exciting,” Granger said. “Hopefully it’ll make my life a little easier going into the season.”
In 2011, the Lady Mountaineers reached the second round of the Class 2A state playoffs and were a series win away from advancing to Columbus. In 2012, the team lost in the first round of the Class 3A state playoffs despite finishing 12-18 overall. In each of those seasons, North Murray didn’t stand out during the regular season but had a late surge through the region tournament and was one of the league’s four teams to earn a state playoff berth.
The softball program was the second in school history — behind the boys soccer team — to reach a team state tournament. The goal is to become the fourth — behind boys soccer and boys and girls golf — to win a region title.
Like Coahulla Creek, the Lady Mountaineers are in Region 5-3A.
“Our coaching staff has been preaching it to the girls,” Granger said. “We want to get in but also get better each game. We don’t want to have the late charge. We want to get something going early and hope it carries us through.
“Like anything, our goal is to win the region championship, and outside of that make it to Columbus.”
North Murray’s season opens Tuesday with a 5 p.m. game at Union County.
With Boyd and the rest of the senior class gone from the title-winning team, it might be easy to focus on what the Lady Bruins lose.
Northwest coach Jason Brooker is happier thinking about what his team returns for his second season leading the program.
Six starters return, and plenty of others got a lot of playing time as Northwest marched through state competition. All six of the returning seniors were members of The Daily Citizen’s All-Area Softball Team last season.
“We have a real strong and experienced senior class with six that have played a lot since they were freshmen,” Brooker said. “They have a lot of varsity experience. Games like baseball and softball are so mental, and the mental experience of those girls is probably more valuable than the physical.”
Catcher Bayli Cruse, first baseman Mallory Souther, shortstop Ashley Conner and outfielders Hannah Godfrey, Colbie Thomas and Macy Weeks all return. Weeks and Souther were the only players out of that group to hit worse than .400, but Souther had 17 extra-base hits and Weeks might be considered the best defensive outfielder in the area.
Based on last year’s numbers, the Lady Bruins shouldn’t lose a step at the plate, but Brooker insists the team will not just be an offensive juggernaut.
“From the outside, that is easy to say, and I would say there are going to be games where we have to score more runs, but BriLeigh Baggett is a good pitcher and had a strong year,” Brooker said of the junior who will step into the void left in the circle by Boyd. “You aren’t going to hit it every game, but I expect us to be stronger offensively.”
As a sophomore, Baggett finished with a 7-1 record with a 1.36 ERA in 46 1/3 innings. She showed power with 41 strikeouts and averaged less than a walk every two innings.
With the pitching and the offense, the Lady Bruins have the potential to remain one of the top teams in Class 4A.
“We don’t want to be overconfident, but I guess I would say that we are not intimidated by any means,” Brooker said. “We can’t just show up and put our uniforms on and expect people to roll over. We have to continue to play.”
Northwest opens its season Monday at Coahulla Creek with a 5:55 p.m. first pitch.
The Lady Raiders made progress with young talent in 2012 — the first season for coach Kelley Barton — as they won 11 games to improve on the previous year’s victory total by eight.
This year, both Barton and her players have a lot more experience and confidence entering the season.
“I do feel very confident, and I am excited,” Barton said. “We do feel like we will be very strong this year. We have some young players who are filling some big roles.”
After graduating one senior — catcher Tavi Parris — from last year’s team, the Lady Raiders’ roster will remain stocked with underclassmen, with Kara Headrick and Chaya Drury the only seniors. Headrick, a pitcher, returns to the team after taking a year away from the diamond, while Drury will anchor third.
Joining Headrick in the rotation will be sophomore Sydney Covington, the lone freshman selected to last year’s all-area team after batting .397 with a .461 on-base percentage. She’ll lead off the lineup at the plate.
A starter at second to begin last season, Covington became the team’s No. 1 pitcher.
“Their experience will help out,” Barton said of the combination of Covington and Headrick in the circle. “Sydney stepped out there as a freshman and became our go-to pitcher, and Kara had done a good job in the past. They are a good combination. I think they are about the same. They throw about the same speed. Kara is more of a finesse pitcher with her movement.”
At the plate, Covington, Drury and junior Brooke Hasty will carry the load for the team early. Barton said Hasty is the main power hitter and will move behind the plate this season after playing first base as a sophomore.
The biggest difference for the Lady Raiders will likely be their attitude. Barton said last season the team was hoping to win games.
This year, they expect to win games, even in Region 7-4A, whose teams have often fared well on a statewide level.
“One thing I can say about our girls is that they are all competitors,” Barton said. “I think they do a good job and give 100 percent effort. We are still young, so in the next couple of years we are going to surprise some people.”