High school softball: Season previews for area teams

Matt Hamilton/Daily Citizen-News

Dalton High School's Claire Archer swings at the ball on Thursday as softball season started this past week for area teams.

Christian Heritage

Coach: Michael Leonard (10th year)

2018 record: 9-13, 4-9 in Region 6-A

Impact players: MacKenzie Hoffman (senior, center field); Tessa Hawkins (senior, shortstop); Tatiana Chiesa (junior, pitcher)

Keep an eye on: Ellie McDonald (senior, first base); Elisa Costello (junior, third base); Faith Humphrey (junior, outfield); Kensley Wooten (junior, catcher); Ansley Adkins (sophomore, infield/pitcher)

Preview: Christian Heritage coach Michael Leonard said success this season for the Lady Lions will come down to a few games.

"We gotta beat those teams that we're equal to or better than," Leonard said. "We can't let those games slip away. If we can do that and beat a few teams who are better than us, we'll put ourselves in a better position when it comes to the state tournament."

In each of the past two seasons, Christian Heritage has faced a top two-ranked seed in the second round of the Class A-Private state playoffs and Leonard said winning a few more regular season games will help the Lady Lions avoid those type early round matchups.

Three seniors return for Christian Heritage this year in Ellie McDonald, Tessa Hawkins and MacKenzie Hoffman. Hawkins, a second-team all-area player last season and a University of Louisville commit, will play shortstop while Hoffman, a first-team all-area selection last season, will play center field. McDonald will play first.

A lot will ride on the performance of junior pitcher Tatiana Chiesa, who will enter the year as the only player on the roster with significant pitching experience. Behind her will be Kensley Wooten who will assume a full-time role as catcher. Mary Kate and Faith Humphrey will flank Hoffman on either side in the outfield, while Elisa Costello and Ansley Adkins will fill out the infield at third base and second base, respectively.

Sophomore Ella Hildebrand and freshman Katie Bagley should also see opportunities to play, with Leonard saying the speed of the young freshman could pay dividends sooner rather than later.

The trio of Chiesa, Hawkins and Hoffman will likely lead the way, however, and Leonard said he expects a lot from his seniors.

"MacKenzie is probably one of the top hitters in the area. I've had several college come reaching out about her," Leonard said. "And the thing I love about Tessa is she goes about her business the right way. She's a really good leader and she's all a great competitor -- smart, smart player."

Coahulla Creek

Coach: Josh Swiney (seventh year)

2018 record: 23-10, 11-5 in Region 6-3A

Impact players: Sophia Voyles (junior, pitcher/outfield); RJ Janke (senior, shortstop/third base); Tatum Poe (senior, shortstop/third base), MiKayla Teems (senior, catcher)

Keep and eye on: Jillian Poe (junior, first base); Emma Snyder (junior, outfield); McKinley Staten (junior, centerfield); Meka Henson (freshman, second base)

Preview: One year after winning the most games in program history, Coahulla Creek will look to ride last season's momentum to new heights once again.

Leading the way will be junior pitcher Sophia Voyles, a Georgia Tech commit and last season's all-area first-team pitcher. Voyles ended last season with an earned run average of 1.68, while posting a record of 12-6. She struck out 162 batters in 120 2/3 innings while walking 38.

"I think she's gotten a little bit stronger, added a little more velocity," Coahulla Creek coach Josh Swiney said. "She's added a new pitch too, a rise ball. She gives us a chance every time out."

Seniors RJ Janke and MiKayla Teems will be asked to provide leadership this season, with Janke expected to play either shortstop or third base and Teems expected to set up behind the plate at catcher. Janke was a second-team all-area selection last season.

The junior class will make up the bulk of the Lady Colts' roster this season. Tatum Poe will play on the left side of the infield at either shortstop or third base, while Emma Snyder and McKinley Staten will both play in the outfield. Jillian Poe is likely to play first base and pitch.

Swiney mentioned freshman Meka Henson, who will likely play second base, as a possible breakout candidate this season with her speed and ability to get on base.

Swiney acknowledged that his team may look different this season without last year's seniors Lily Snyder and Maddi Locke, both first-team all-area performers.

"We definitely had a great year last year, but offensively it will be a different look this year because we don't have the same power," Swiney said. "This year's team should be solid defensively and our leaders offensively this season should be RJ and Tatum for sure. Mikayla and Emma should be big for us, too, and Meka is gonna step in there right away and be able to play."

Dalton

Coach: Stacy Parker (seventh year)

2018 record: 25-12, 9-7 in Region 6-6A

Impact players: Keen Johnson (senior, catcher); Emily Brunson (junior, first base/pitcher); Zoe Dales (senior, centerfield)

Keep an eye on: Hope Parker (junior, first base/pitcher); Dasia Ware (sophomore, utility/pitcher); Natalie Moya (sophomore, shortstop); Claire Archer (freshman, first base)

Preview: One year after claiming the first region title in program history, the Dalton softball team will take on the task of replacing last season's deep and talented senior class which included four first-team all-area players.

The challenge for coach Stacy Parker is to convince a young team that this season is its own story.

"Those girls from last year will definitely be missed but we can't worry about last year, we're not really talking about last year at all," Parker said. "It's a different group and they need to form their own identity."

Returning to lead the way is the 2018 Daily Citizen-News Softball Player of the Year Keen Johnson, who led the area in hits with 57 and RBIs with 53 as a junior. Parker said Johnson will likely be the team's starting catcher this year after playing mostly first base last season. Fellow senior Zoe Dales and junior Emily Brunson will also bring experience to the field for the Lady Catamounts, with Brunson likely to be the team's No. 1 pitcher and Dales likely to start in center field.

Abby Stout is the third senior along with Johnson and Dales, and should play in one of the outfield spots this season. The only other junior beyond Brunson will be Hope Parker, who will likely be the team's No. 2 pitcher this season.

Coach Parker said he was surprised by a few of his younger players during tryouts and through the early preseason practices. Sophomores Dasia Ware and Natalie Moya should see opportunities to play in the infield along with freshman Claire Archer and Gracie Young.

In a region with defending Class 6A state champion Harrison and three other teams who were ranked in the top 10 in the state last season, the younger Lady Cats will learn firsthand what top level fastpitch softball looks like in the state of Georgia.

"I don't know where we'll finish this year, but I expect it to be good, and I told them that," Parker said. "We'll get thrown in the fire, we'll see some of the best players in the state, and I kinda like starting out with games like that. I think we'll sneak up on some people this year because they're not expecting us to be good. We're gonna be young but it'll be fun watching this girls grow."

Murray County

Coach: Eric Weaver (fifth year)

2018 record: 3-22, 1-15 in Region 6-3A

Impact players: Maddie Jenkins (senior, second base); Jordan Swanson (senior, first base); Kacie Ausmus (senior, pitcher); Brooklyn Gonzalez (sophomore, third base); Natalie O'Neal (sophomore; pitcher/outfield); Kylie Usrey (sophomore, shortstop)

Keep an eye on: Aubri Green (junior, outfield); Hannah Langley (junior, outfield)

Preview: Since taking over the Murray County softball program five years ago, Eric Weaver has done his best to reshape the team every year since his first.

A process he said has been a continuous one, this year's Lady Indians have the potential to be the best Weaver has seen in a while.

"My first year on the job, we had three star seniors who went to play in college," he said. "It takes a couple years to get over that. It's like building a program all over again and trying to rebound, but this is the biggest senior group I've had in some time."

Weaver said this year's team has set a goal to win half of its games after being well below the mark last season. Doomed by close losses, the switch has flipped he said.

"I think we have enough talent on the team to do that and it's a really feasible goal," Weaver said. "We've got some players that can definitely make things happen."

Leading the way will be the Lady Indian defense, showcased by senior pitcher Kacie Ausmus. She split time with sophomore Natalie O'Neal last season, who both bring something different to the table, Weaver said.

"Natalie is more of a power thrower, while Kacie moves the ball around," he said. "But it's nice to have both. I hope pitching keeps us in some games, and I'm really looking for Kacie to be a leader. Natalie will hopefully follow after her and learn from what she does."

Besides the experienced pitchers, Murray County returns almost its entire team besides two strong leaders who graduated last year in Allison Weaver and Attie Ridley.

"As far as a foundation they were two strong characters," Weaver said. "I'll miss that about them, but it's been nice so far. The last few weeks of practice have gone well.

"I hope to say that this team is full of fighters and don't give up no matter what the score is. As long as you're fighting hard I'm good with that."

North Murray

Coach: Jeff Samples (first year)

2018 record: 12-16, 7-9 in Region 6-3A

Impact players: McKinley Fields (senior, third base); Alivia Rymer (senior, shortstop); Erin Blankenship (senior, center field); Talli Burgess (senior, pitcher); Kaylee Higgins (senior, catcher); Samantha Black (senior, second base); Avery McCamy (senior, second base); Annabell Ortiz (senior, left field)

Keep on eye: Abby Young (sophomore, pitcher/first base/right field)

Preview: North Murray's Jeff Samples didn't necessarily think he'd be back coaching after a 12-year stint across multiple sports in Jacksonville, Florida.

But after getting ready for this year with the Lady Mountaineers, he said he's ready to go.

"I really thought I was done coaching," the third-year Georgia resident said. "When we moved here, my son was entering his junior year of high school and I promised him I wouldn't coach. Now he's graduated and moving on to do his own thing. I didn't know if I would ever go back, and I didn't even know the position was open."

Samples said he learned of the job after making a real-life connection to coaching in his U.S. history class. He happened to have a few softball players in the room.

"After a few girls approached me, I told them I would think about it," he said. "But I told them I didn't want them pestering me.

"They never said another word."

After accepting the job in May, Samples got to work. After all, he's got big goals.

"I hope at the end of the season I can say they were the first state champions at North Murray," Samples said. "That might be a little out there, but that's who I am."

The Lady Mountaineers return a senior-heavy roster with it's top two hitters from last season in third baseman McKinley Fields and shortstop Alivia Rymer. The duo combined for 57 hits, along with having 19 RBIs apiece last year. Senior Talli Burgess will provide stability as the team's top pitcher.

While the team finished very middle-of-the-pack last year, Samples said the seniors are expecting a lot more of themselves this season as he is adjusting to coaching again.

"It's been really nice. I love being out there," he said. "But that's been absolutely the case for them. They expect better things, and I can't always be there for everything they do so they know what they are supposed to be doing.

"I've kind of had to relearn some things myself and get back into the swing of things. But it's like riding a bicycle. You never really forget, so my expectation is to win."

Northwest Whitfield

Coach: Todd Middleton (eighth year)

2018 record: 16-13, 8-3 in Region 6-4A

Impact players: Molly Middleton (senior, shortstop); Payton Tuder (senior, second base); Shaylen Sutton (senior, pitcher); Katelyn Hannah (senior, outfield/pitcher); Alex Smith (senior, pitcher/first base); Torrey Cummings (sophomore, third base)

Keep an eye on: Destin Jewell (sophomore, pitcher); Abi Snipes (sophomore, catcher); Mia Sewell (sophomore, outfield); Kylie Hayes (sophomore, pitcher/outfield)

Preview: Northwest Whitfield coach Todd Middleton has liked what he's seen so far as the Lady Bruins get ready to dive into a new school year.

Northwest returns its top hitter in senior Molly Middleton, as well as a strong group of other seniors ready to lead the way.

"We had some chemistry issues last year," Todd Middleton said of the team's third-place finish in Region 6-4A. "I think what this group has is really good chemistry and really good work ethic. One of the biggest things is their selflessness. They are really looking out for each other."

Molly Middleton retakes her spot as the starting shortstop, providing leadership to the infield after her team-high 29 hits last season. Senior Payton Tuder will be right by her side at second base. While the Lady Bruins lost a few seniors, including pitchers Anna Grace Rann and Cara Rann, they return another top pitcher in senior Shaylen Sutton.

Coach Middleton said he's looking for the seniors to take charge, especially when he's not looking.

"Molly and Payton have played so much since their freshman year and are kind of naturally leaders, but all of them go about their business. That's what we like," he said. "It's odd not having any juniors. Most years at least five or six in each class, so I guess it makes the seniors extra close.'"

Despite the age gap, coach Middleton said he isn't worried about the sophomores either -- a handful of which saw significant playing time last year as freshmen.

"Enough of the sophomores got enough playing time last year to take on some bigger roles," he said. "We had too many outside issues last year overall, but this is a good group. The freshmen coming in are working hard, too."

By the end of the season, coach Middleton said he hopes the seniors end on a positive note after the team's loss in the first round of playoffs last year.

"Obviously we want to win and the accolades are great, but this is a senior group who is pretty close," Middleton said. "We're ready to go."

Southeast Whitfield

Coach: Austin Fowler (second year)

2018 record: 0-21, 0-12 in Region 6-4A

Impact players: Lily Phillips (senior, catcher); Haylee Terry (senior, first base); Kaylee Taylor (junior, infielder/pitcher)

Keep an eye on: Emma Long (junior, infield); Madison Powell (junior, shortstop); Brooke Taylor (junior, third base); Violet Gazaway (junior, outfield); Mayliah Williams (junior, outfield)

Preview: One year after going winless, the Lady Raiders' second-year coach Austin Fowler decided to borrow a bit of advice from one of the best coaches in college football history.

"I know a lot of people aren't the biggest fans of him but I love Nick Saban, and he did gave a speech on leadership and I made the girls watch it," Fowler said. "He talks a lot about being disciplined and doing things the right way. I'm hoping those lessons will be instilled in our girls, not only on the softball field, but also in life."

Southeast will return senior Lily Phillips at catcher, an all-area third-team member, who led the Lady Raiders in nearly every offensive category as a junior. The only other senior on this year's team will be Haley Terry, who was an all-area honorable mention player last season at first base.

The bulk of the roster will consist of juniors, along with four sophomores and two freshmen. Kaylee Taylor, a junior, will serve as the team's primary pitcher, with sophomore Jayden Bennett also expected to log innings in the circle. Madison Powell will likely be the team's shortstop and Brooke Taylor will play alongside her at third base. Emma Long, a newcomer this year, will likely play middle infield, while Violet Gazaway and Mayliah Williams will both play in the outfield.

The team will hit the ground running with four games scheduled in the first week of the season. Fowler said despite the team's record last season his players kept a positive attitude, which was exemplified by the team playing one its best games of the season in 4-1 loss to Pickens in the final game. Fowler said he's hoping a renewed focus on details such as situational hitting and defense will lead to more success, but emphasized to his players the importance of how they act outside the lines as well.

"We struggled a little bit with the bats last season, and hopefully this year the work we've put in the weight room will pay off for us," Fowler said. "We'll take it one game at a time, and try to get better each week. I tell my team every year that I want them to do well on the field, but I want them to be successful in life, too. To be good citizens in the community here and give back."

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