Who will deliver the surprises this season?
It was no shocker last fall when Northwest Whitfield’s softball team returned to Columbus for the Class 4A state tournament, where the Lady Bruins earned their second top-four finish in three years. They had plenty of talent back from the previous two seasons, including ace Emily Boyd, who was on the way to earning her third straight selection as The Daily Citizen’s All-Area Softball Player of the Year.
But the area’s other two postseason qualifiers wouldn’t have been easy picks for the playoffs early in the 2011 schedule. It was mid-September before Dalton and North Murray started playing their best softball, and they carried that momentum into good performances at their region tournaments to earn trips to state as No. 4 seeds.
What will 2012 bring?
Well, Northwest has a new coach in Jason Brooker, but with most of last year’s roster intact, the Lady Bruins should be poised for at least another deep postseason run — and perhaps ready to grab the title that has yet proved elusive.
But the turnaround for Dalton and North Murray over the course of last fall is evidence that even teams who may not impress in August could have great things in store come October.
And plenty is new for this season, from coaching changes at Dalton, Northwest and Southeast Whitfield to a jump from the GISA to the GHSA for Christian Heritage to region reshuffling.
With games starting for several area teams today, here’s a look at their expectations for the fall.
Of the many concerns facing second-year coach Mike Leonard and his Lady Lions, one clearly stands at the forefront: health.
Only 10 players are on the roster this year.
“It’s unfortunate,” Leonard said, “that we’ve had some girls that have decided not to play.”
With the transition to the GHSA this season, eighth-grade students are not allowed to play varsity sports, as they were in the GISA. The team had four eighth-graders on the roster last season.
“You have to start somewhere,” the coach said.
They’ll start with pitching, and senior Rebecca Leonard returns as the team’s ace. Leonard, who has committed to Samford University in Birmingham, Ala., was a GISA All-Region 4-2A and Class 2A All-State selection last fall. Leonard was also a top hitter for the Lady Lions, who finished their first season in the GISA with a 4-7-1 record. They had previously played in the spring against Tennessee schools.
Coach Leonard, Rebecca’s father, said his daughter enjoyed the summer league experience this year. Rebecca pitched against some tough competition, including the Tulsa Elite 95, considered one of the top teams in the nation, at the Hall of Fame Tournament in Oklahoma City. The senior fared well that game, striking out 10 in a 2-1 loss.
Also back is junior Erin Harden, another talented starting pitcher who was selected to the All-Region 4-2A team. In the past, when not pitching she has played first base, but she will also work at shortstop position this season.
“It may take half the year to adjust, but she’ll do fine,” coach Leonard said. “She’ll work and continue to get better.”
Regan Benedict, a freshman who was an all-region selection last year, will start behind the plate. She is also considered one of the team’s top hitters.
Fielding a team with mostly underclassmen, coach Leonard knows there will be a learning curve. The Lady Lions will compete in Sub-region 6A-A, where the competition includes Gordon Lee, winner of the past two Class A state titles.
“This will be our adjustment year. By the time the freshmen get to be seniors, all four grades will have quality ballplayers. The number will grow to around 15,” he said. “Our biggest challenge really will be staying healthy, with the number we have now and the quality of pitching that we’re going to see in a new league.”
Knowing the experience his team will get against new and stronger competition encourages the Lady Lions’ coach.
“If our defense can make the routine play, and our pitching will come through and limit walks, we’ll be competitive,” he said. “Playing in this league will benefit our younger girls and our team down the road.”
Christian Heritage opens the season today at a tournament in Harlem that will continue Saturday.
A recurring theme will emerge for all of Coahulla Creek’s athletic teams in 2012-13 — it’s amazing what a difference a year makes.
After struggling for the most part on the playing fields and courts in the school’s inaugural year, the expectations are a lot higher now.
That is especially true on the softball diamond, where the Lady Colts finished with a 7-17 record with a team that was composed of only sophomores and freshmen. Considering that disadvantage, seven wins may sound like a lot, but coach Rhett Parrott has greater expectations for Year 2.
“We scrimmaged Southeast on Tuesday, which was a good opportunity to see where we are, and we feel good about it,” said Parrott, who has taken over duties as the school’s athletic director this year. “We feel like we have some questions that still need to be answered, but it is nice that have year of experience under everyone’s belt.”
The Lady Colts will still be sophomore-heavy this season. Players counted on for big contributions include Shelbe Dilbeck (the team’s No. 1 pitcher), Emily Banks (starting catcher and anchor of the middle of the batting order) and the left-side infield combination of LaSha Hedden at third base and Kala Franks at short. The only upperclassman starter for the Lady Colts will be junior center fielder Haley Reece.
Joining that group will be another crew of players moving up from coach Melanie Reed’s program at North Whitfield, which won the area middle school athletic league title last year.
“Coach Reed does a great job with the program down there,” Parrott said. “She has won quite a few titles down there, and it is nice to have that feeder coming into our program.”
The Lady Colts will open the season at Murray County on Tuesday, and the team moves into a new region, jumping up from Class 2A into 3A’s Sub-region 5A, where the competition includes Ringgold, Lakeview-Fort Oglethorpe and North Murray. All of those teams qualified for the state playoffs last year.
“It is going to be a tough region,” Parrott said. “But I feel like with the year of experience, they will know what to expect now. We were all new to each other last year, and it is nice for me personally to have a year under my belt, so I know the girls are a lot more comfortable.”
While that comfort level has increased, Parrott said there is still work to be done.
“For us to win, we have to play solid defense and do the little things right each and every time,” Parrott said. “We are looking for a little more consistency right now at all of our positions.”
Usually player names change from year to year while coaches are more apt to stay the same.
This fall, the reverse is true for the Lady Catamounts.
Dalton is coming off a 19-18 season that included a trip to the Class 3A state playoffs, which ended quickly as the Lady Cats were swept in the opening round by eventual state champions Oconee County.
The job of making sure the Lady Cats keep up with the progress they made in the second half of the 2011 season belongs now to Jeff McKinney, who has been a softball assistant for the several past seasons and the school’s head girls basketball coach for a decade. He replaces former coach Bobby Brotherton, who accepted a position with Whitfield County Schools.
Brotherton left behind a lot of familiar faces for McKinney, though. The Lady Cats return six starters, not including first baseman Blakely Thomason, who missed last season due to an injury.
“She was a starter her freshman and sophomore season,” McKinney said. “So you could kind of say we have seven returning starters.”
That high number should help with flow and continuity, McKinney said.
“It is a good number and includes both our pitchers,” he said. “Any time you have a larger group that has already been playing, it definitely helps getting everything prepared for the first games.”
One of the players not returning is the new coach’s daughter, Chandler McKin-ney. She was selected to The Daily Citizen’s All-Area Softball Team in 2011, her senior season.
However, coach McKinney is confident the expectations will remain the same for his team: make it to state.
“Northwest, (Heritage-Catoosa), Ridgeland — our region has a lot of depth with teams who made the state playoffs,” he said. “So it will be tough.”
The Lady Cats will be led by senior pitchers Allie Blackwood and Carson Hagin, infielders Destinee Woods (a junior) and Jessica Cisneros (a senior), senior outfielder Sarah Stinnett and sophomore catcher Kylee Harris.
Dalton will compete at Model’s Lady Blue Devil Invitational tournament in Rome today and Saturday to open its 2012 schedule.
Coach Sandra Johnston expects this season to be significantly different than last year, when the Lady Indians went 0-27.
“At the beginning of last year we were getting run-ruled like crazy,” said Johnston, who’s entering her fifth season with the Lady Indians’ program. “At the end we were playing complete games. We learned and got better, especially on defense. We just never did get a win.”
The late-season upgrade in play continued during the offseason as seven players — senior Madison Wilcox, sophomores Ashlee Strong, Ariel Smith and Shea Pendley, and freshmen Whitney Gribble and Lindsey Young — played summer ball.
“The team also went to the Shorter College camp where we won two games, lost two, including a 1-0 game, and tied one,” John-ston said. “I batted all 14 kids in those games, and I’m going to have more options than I’m used to having. I think we’re going to surprise a bunch of people this year.”
Aligned in Region 7-2A this season with Calhoun, Chattooga, Coosa, Dade County, Model, Pepperell and Armuchee, the Lady Indians will be led by Pendley. The slick-fielding sophomore third baseman was the team’s leading hitter last season with a .551 batting average — 265 points higher than Wilcox, No. 2 on the list — as she earned All-Region 7-3A and The Daily Citizen All-Area honors.
After relying almost exclusively on Ashlyn Davis to pitch in 2011, Johnston will have Gribble and fellow freshman Lindsey Dunn as primary hurlers, with sophomore Ariel Smith also able to get some innings.
“Those freshmen show a lot of promise,” Johnston said. “Ashlyn hadn’t pitched in two years, and she needed half the season to come around and help us become competitive. And she pitched almost every single game. Our defense was really a factor in us playing better last year.”
Another freshman, Aubrie Osborne, will be behind the plate. That will allow Strong, last year’s catcher, to play in the outfield.
Johnston is confident that versatility and the valuable experience of her players are reasons for optimism this time around.
“My players love the game,” Johnston said. “They want to win and I’m eager to see how it plays out.”
The Lady Indians open the season today at the Lady Blue Devil Invitational.
A year ago, the Lady Mountaineers were underdogs until they started winning. And winning.
Coming off a 3-17-1 record in 2010, North Murray went 18-15 last season, played for the Sub-region 7B-2A title and reached the second round of the state playoffs. There, the Lady Mountaineers were swept in a best-of-three series at Buford — they lost 8-2 in both games — which went on to win its fifth consecutive state championship.
So, coach Daphne Wink-ler’s Lady Mountaineers won’t be sneaking up on anybody this year.
“The tables are turned and we have a completely different mentality,” said Winkler, who starts her second year in charge Saturday with an 11 a.m. game at Cartersville. “The target is on our back and we have to deal with that. Our girls have to be totally focused and ready to go.”
Winkler credits an influx of freshman talent with powering last year’s turnaround. On top of that, the entire team embraced a nothing-to-lose philosophy that worked wonderfully.
“We were at the bottom the previous year,” said Winkler, whose team competes in Region 5-3A this season. “We had a lot work to do and the biggest thing was getting the girls to believe they could win.”
Four of last season’s newcomers — third baseman Megan Pittman, shortstop Bailee Sutton, second baseman Samantha Stafford and outfielder Amber Bandy — earned starting positions.
Pittman led the Lady Mountaineers with a .404 batting average while collecting 42 hits, driving in 15 runs, scoring 31 times and stealing 18 bases. Sutton batted. 369 with 38 hits, 21 RBIs, 29 runs scored and 14 stolen bases. Stafford collected 27 hits, drew 14 walks, scored 22 runs and stole 13 bases.
Bandy’s most impressive role was that of a strong defensive player.
“Those girls really picked up the slack at positions we needed to fill,” Winkler said. “We have two freshmen this year — Memorie Pierce and Mcchaela Cochran — and Sara Silvers, a junior transfer from Dalton, who could play quite a bit.”
Senior pitcher Hannah Hensley, 13-6 in 2011, will continue in her starting role as the Lady Mountaineers strive to meet the expectations their performances created.
“We were thrilled to death about last season,” Winkler said, “but our region is strong this year. It will take a lot more work and dedication to keep winning.”
Expectations couldn’t get much higher for the Lady Bruins.
With three seniors who have started since they were freshmen and a junior class which can pretty much say the same, the experience is surely there. And with two top-four finishes in the past three years at the Class 4A state tournament, success has been there as well.
What hasn’t been there is first-year coach Jason Brooker. But even he welcomes the great expectations for the season.
“We have a lot of expectations, but I think we are ready for the challenge,” said Brooker, who took over for Shane Ramsey, who resigned this past spring and was recently named the head baseball coach at Dalton.
“I kind of like that pressure. I like to expect to win when we walk onto the field. You can say there is pressure on me, but when it all comes down to it, I’m not the one that has to get it done on the diamond.”
And this year’s group of Lady Bruins are used to getting things done.
Northwest finished 29-9 last season, falling in the loser’s bracket semifinals in Columbus. The roster is highlighted by senior pitcher Emily Boyd, who has committed to Ole Miss, and third baseman Mykeah Johnson, who has committed to East Tennessee State. Boyd, Johnson, junior catcher Bayli Cruse and junior outfielder/first baseman Colbie Thomas were all named to the Class 4A All-State team last fall.
Boyd is perhaps the most dominant pitcher in the state after posting a 27-7 record with 230 strikeouts in 203 innings of work with a paltry earned run average of 0.67. Johnson, Cruse and Thomas all batted .540 or better last year, with Cruse leading the team with five homers and 40 RBIs.
“All three seniors and most of the juniors have played since their freshman years,” Brooker said. “They know what to expect, and they have been through the battles together. Basically my goal this summer was to get to know them and let them get to know me, my style and the way that I coach. I think that we did that.”
The Lady Bruins will remain in Class 4A this season, but with reclassification, region games will be closer to home and will have more of an atmosphere because of more familiar opponents. Joining Sub-region 7B-4A will be Dalton, Southeast, Ridgeland, Heritage and LaFayette. Gone are long trips close to Atlanta for region games.
“As far as competition, it is still going to be a tough region,” Brooker said. “Travel will be a lot better and playing teams you are familiar with, it will be great. The intensity will be a little bit higher playing against girls that you know.”
The Lady Bruins open the regular season at 7 p.m. today at Whitewater.
The Lady Raiders are starting fresh.
From the players on the field to the head coach in the dugout, this will be a brand new squad.
Kelley Barton, a 2005 Southeast Whitfield graduate, takes over a team that missed the state playoffs last season, the sixth straight year the program has come up short in that regard. The Lady Raiders went 3-10 overall and 3-8 in Region 7-3A play.
The last time Southeast made the state playoffs was 2005, the season after Barton graduated. She is the team’s sixth coach in 10 seasons, but hopes to help turn a string of disappointing seasons into a model of building success with the first brick.
“The first step is start from the bottom,” Barton said. “I’m taking kids from the middle school program, putting them in the weight room and making them stronger.”
Barton said only 10 players were on Southeast’s roster in 2011 but that there are “a lot of strong freshmen coming in.” There are six players from last year’s roster returning, including sophomore outfielder Mekala White, third baseman junior Chaya Drury, sophomore outfielder Kristen Wyatt, sophomore first baseman Brooke Hasty, sophomore right fielder Kayleen Mullins and senior catcher Tavi Parris.
“Tavi is our leader,” Barton said. “She is our captain this year and the backbone of the team pretty much.”
There are eight freshman on the 14-player roster, and one of them, pitcher Sydney Covington, said the newcomers are not intimidated by the next level.
“We are doing very well,” Covington said. “It’s nothing big. We’re not nervous or anything.”
Considering the recent history Barton inherits, this year is not so much about wins and losses, although she does hope the new injection of freshman talent helps in the standings.
“Any coach wants to win,” she said, “but this year I’m just working on foundation and building a unified team. I want to start changing the attitude to make it where the girls believe they can win.”
Southeast’s first games are today and Saturday in the Lady Blue Devil Invitational.
Compiled by The Daily Citizen sports writers Devin Golden and Chris Whitfield and correspondents Larry Fleming and Dave Gordon.