Bring on the heat
Lady Leopard fast-pitch softball season starts up
One year ago, Banks County started its varsity fast-pitch softball program.
The sport had already seen play on the middle school and junior varsity level. And at the beginning of the 2002 season, the school made the full transition to the sport.
The year was a tough one for the Lady Leopards. They won only three games, downing Buford and Towns County and stunning Wesleyan at home.
In the off season, seven girls left the varsity team. Three of them graduated, including the teams leading hitter and a college signee. Four others decided not to continue playing fast-pitch
But the Lady Leopards do return a bevy of solid players, the majority of whom saw playing time last year on the varsity or junior varsity level. And all of them are on the team because they want to play fast-pitch.
Were not big in numbers but were a little bit more motivated than we were last year, second year head coach Kevin Gaines said. The ones that are out there are dedicated to it and want to play.
Banks County has had a problem getting high numbers out this season. The Lady Leopards have had to bring two girls up from the eighth grade in order to play a shortened five-game JV schedule.
And on the varsity side, the Lady Leopards will have nine in the field who are no strangers to the game.
Of the teams three seniors, Nicole Powell will likely step up as a team leader. The versatile infielder finished the season fourth in hitting for Banks County. She had a .259 average with seven RBIs and two triples.
Shes our leading person coming back, Gaines said. Shes going to have to be the leader.
Seniors Ashley Denton and Jessica Freeman will also be back out for Banks. Denton got most of her time in last season at first while Freeman spent time in the outfield.
ON THE MOUND
Rachel Walker, the teams top pitcher, returns for another year on the mound. Besides her top job of pitching, she was also one of the Lady Leopards top hitters.
Walker put up a .306 average during the season.
While the Lady Leopards looked to Walker almost exclusively on the mound last season, shell get some help this year.
Promising freshman Gabbie Fleming will share time with sophomore Kayla Sims. Sims, Gaines said, has improved in the off season.
AROUND THE PARK
Gaines proved during an intersquad scrimmage Friday that he plans to play the girls in different roles throughout the season. And though he hasnt specified exact positions for every player, some will be more likely than others to get the nod on the field.
Sophomore Brooke Whitmire will likely spend a fair amount of time behind home plate. She suited up some in the role last year.
Whitmire saw 16 at bats for the varsity team last year as a freshman. When compiled with the rest of the varsity players, she was number two on the team in hitting with an average of .313.
She also had six RBIs in her limited number of plate appearance, a rate of nearly one RBI for every three at bats.
Freshman Hope Autry and sophomore Brittany Harris also saw time behind the plate during an intersquad scrimmage last week.
The remainder of the team could be spread out almost anywhere on the field.
If the Lady Leopards accomplished one thing last season, it was making improvements.
The team finished the year above where it started in nearly every major category, slowly transitioning into the new sport.
Were way above where we were when we started last year, Gaines said. Im really confident well be better than last year.
Gaines said he hasnt had to focus as much on the smaller aspects of the game. But the team is focusing on the two keys to the sport.
Fast-pitch always comes down to pitching and hitting, Gaines said. Youve got to have those two areas.
The Lady Leopards are looking this year to making improvements in overall performance, hoping to give wind to a program looking to get off the ground.
We want to improve from last year, Gaines said. Thats what were shooting for, all the way around.
Gaines added that hes looking forward to the new season with a new schedule that adds several other young programs to the Lady Leopards slate, including Athens Christian and Rabun Gap.
The team will also be in the Falcon Invitational at Flowery Branch early in the season against several other teams looking to get their start in the fast-pitch sport.
One Last Time
2003 To Be Swan Song Year For Slow Pitch Softball In Commerce
None of Donny Drews current players were even born when he coached his first slow pitch softball game game for Commerce in 1984.
And 20 seasons later, hes still the man calling the shots in the dugout.
But with the prep sport with which hes been involved for the past two decades rapidly crumbling, this year looks to be both the coachs and the slow pitch teams last go-round as Commerce High School is scheduled to disband the program after this season in favor of the fast pitch game which as all but engulfed the state.
The plan is that this will be the last year, he said.
Dont count Drew as one of those thrilled at the states evolution away from slow pitch but he said that itd be hard for Commerces agenda to be any different than moving to fast pitch. With only 21 teams in the state left playing slow pitch right now, the GHSA has only enough schools for two classifications Class A through AAAA in one group and then AAAAA by itself.
With more schools likely jettisoning their programs next year, those remaining in slow pitch would have to be lumped into one single classification for the entire state.
Futhermore, Commerces feeder programs the junior varsity and middle school teams have both made the switch to fast pitch.
So with change coming at every turn, the best the slow pitch program can hope for is a respectable swan song.
Wed like to go out with a strong team, Drew said.
For the Tigers to be successful their final time out, theyll have to do it in a seven-team area where theyll complete with the likes of AAAA schools Jackson County, Jones County, Rockdale County and Heritage.
Commerce and fellow Class A schools Jefferson and Temple round out the area.
All teams will play at the area tournament. All teams will go to state in Columbus.
Its a pitiful situation but thats what weve got, he said.
One positive though is that this years travel situation wont be as bad as last year when the team had to trek to Temple, Gilmer County and Lincoln County.
Distant schools like Heritage, Temple and Jones County will all have to travel to Commerce, leaving the Tigers with only one lengthy road trip Rockdale County on Oct. 9.
From a competitive standpoint, Drew said larger schools with bigger numbers will likely be able to put an experienced player at every position which might make life tough for a Class A school which could have several girls with limited experience at a certain spots.
That might make a difference in whether were competitive or not, Drew said.
So success in the curtain year for fast pitch will have to rely on big years from a number of players.
With half of its starting lineup lost from last year, Commerce will have to look to a nucleus of veterans looking to end their careers on a high note.
The 14-member team includes players like Stephanie Rainwater, Ashley Evans, Lauren Lance, Whitney Brown, Jena Fields and Samantha Ingram who all are in at least their third year of varsity softball.
Drew added, however, it will also take contributions from at least five or six young players for the team to be competitive.
There are two keys: first, whether or not the girls with experience can play like theyre capable of playing just because youve been playing five or six years doesnt necessarily mean youre playing how you should and then, whether if any of the younger girls can pick it up.
The team will have three tournaments in which to prepare for those veterans and younger players for the area slate the Oconee County tournament Aug. 23, a tournament in Jefferson Sept. 6 and a tournament in Jackson County Sept. 13.
The area schedule will open with Jefferson Sept. 23 and run through Oct. 14 with the area tournament starting Oct. 21.
The program will have its final game in the state tournament which will be held Oct. 30-Nov. 1.
As for after this year, Drew said that while playing fast pitch would provide opportunities for future girls wanting to earn college scholarships, he said hed still be sad to see slow pitch go, explaining that several aspects of the fast pitch game might be less appealing to a spectator. For example, a team with a dominant pitcher could result in games cholk full of strikeouts while a contest that features two teams without a quality pitcher and catcher could lead to high scoring games marked by a slew of unearned runs.
But more importantly, he isnt sure that the fast pitch game will be more enjoyable to the girls.
I dont think the girls will have as much fun playing fast pitch as they did slow pitch, he said.
Drew said he has no problems stepping aside and letting those who are heading up the fast pitch game in Commerce coach the varsity program as long as thats what they want to do.
Drews daughter Kerri Lord, who coached the middle school fast pitch team last year and will coach the JV fast pitch team, will likely become the varsity fast pitch coach next year if she wishes.
However, Drew said he would coach the fast pitch game if the need arose on down the road.
If Im still working and someone needs to coach the team then Id coach.
Making it to the last weekend in October
Softball Raiders have eyes on fourth straight trip to Columbus
Its a humble way of saying it, but a statement that nevertheless leaves little doubt to the stability of the Madison County softball program right now.
Our goal every year is to be playing that last weekend in October, said head coach Doug Kesler who enters his sixth year in Raider dugout.
Thats otherwise known as the state tournament Elite Eight in Columbus, a plateau Madison County reached twice in AAA (2000 and 2001) and then duplicated in its rookie campaign in AAAA in 2002.
Some of the faces are gone, some of the players are gone, but the goals are still the same, Kesler said. If you can make it there (to Columbus), anything can happen.
For Madison County, which begins play Thursday against Hart County in its 12-team Lead Off Classic at the Madison County Recreation Department, it all starts with senior leadership and the Raiders will have a dugout full of them with seven returning this year from last years 26-12 team, some of which already have three state tournament patches on their letter jackets.
This group of 12th graders will look to lead the program to its fourth consecutive trip to Columbus.
Weve got a good group of senior leadership, Kesler said whose teams have won 128 games in his tenure. Senior leadership is always key. The last few years, the success weve had, the characteristic of all three teams has been the senior leadership weve had.
Kesler, however, points out that he also has a good mix of underclassmen to compliment those veterans with four juniors, four sophomores and one ninth grader suiting up this year.
The coach said that this years personnel leave the team balanced on all three fronts, without a glaring weakness.
But if there are any subtle growing pains, they could come in the field where the team lost everything up the middle with the graduation of three all-state players catcher Brooke Kesler, Raider career wins leader Lindsey Barnette and center fielder Sarah Owen and the shifting of last years short stop Casey Allen to catcher. The team will also miss Melanie Elrod who was a defensive standout at third base.
That leaves four positions that will be manned by first-year starters this season.
But Kesler said if history is an indicator, he doesnt need to worry, pointing out that his teams seem to have its preseason questions answered by crunch time in the fall.
You just have to believe that its all going to come together at the end, he said. So far weve been fortunate enough for that to happen. And were counting on it happening this year. Thats what were working for.
Pitching will again look to be a team strong hold as two underclassmen junior Sarah Tippins and sophomore Cassidy Pridgen will shoulder the pitching duties.
Tippins (12-4, 1.27 ERA) is already a quite accomplished varsity pitcher with 25 wins to her credit in just two years and Pridgen (2-0, 3.36 ERA) has promise, winning two games at last years Morgan County Tournament in spot starts for Barnette.
Weve got to have one of these girls step up and be the stopper, Kesler said. Because always in the past weve had a Sheena Mason or weve had a Lindsey Barnette that in the big game could step up and we could count on them and thats what weve got to have this year. I think both these girls are capable of doing that.
Offensively, Shubert, who will become the programs first four-year starter as a position player, returns as the teams most dangerous weapon coming off a .436 year at the plate in 2002.
Shell be the catalyst. Well look to her to get us going, Kesler said.
Other quality bats on the team include Casey Allen (.271), Laura Baird (.308), Sarah Tippins, Taylor Sapp (.269), Kassidy Guthrie and Michelle Archer (.400).
All those girls are going to be expected to swing the bat for us this year and get some production there.
The infield will stack up like this: Allen has her new home behind the plate; Sapp is back at first; Jennifer Stone returns at second; Melissa Elrod and freshman Brittany Williams, who Kesler says shows a lot of promise, are competing for the short stops job;
and K. Guthrie and Michelle Archer will split time at third while Archer can play second if needed.
In the outfield, Baird and Shubert will give the team experience in left and right field while center field is still up in the air with Bonnie Westbrook and first-year senior Jessica Bentle vying for time there.
Kesler said the defensive lineup might not be finalized until the conclusion of the Leadoff Classic.
From a competitive standpoint, things will look a bit tougher this year as Madison County, which won once 29 straight area games, wont even be the favorite in their sub-area this fall.
That distinction goes to new-found rival, Jackson County, to according Kelser.
Jacksons going to be tough this year, he said. Theyve got everybody back. Theyve got great pitching, got an great athlete catching and theyve got a lot of great role players around those two. Id say theyd be the team to beat on our side and maybe in the whole area.
While Madison County has traditionally dominated the Panthers, the Raiders were nipped by Jackson County in the regular season last year but recouped the loss in the area tournament.
Kesler agreed that the series is more heated now with the split in 2002.
It makes it exciting to be able to have those rivalries, he said.
On the other side of the area, Kesler expects Eastside and Newton to be tough along with Loganville, who he said returns an impressive young team from last year. He added that Heritage lost a lot of its personnel from last year but traditionally turns out solid ball clubs.
A CHANCE TO SHOWCASE TALENT
Not only does this weeks leadoff tournament give the Raiders and other teams in the state a chance to iron out the pre-area-play kinks, it also gives players a venue to showcase their talent.
Kesler pointed out that six or seven college coaches usually attend the tournament each year but an even bigger push has been made to draw attention to the event this time. Approximately 40 college coaches where e-mailed about the tournament with coaches from as far away as the Indiana University expressing interest in making the trip to Danielsville.
This is one of the reason we started this tournament for exposure for girls in the area, Kesler said.
Panthers prep for Friday scrimmage at White Co.
After several weeks of grueling preseason work against one another, the Jackson County football team will finally get to battle an opposing squad Friday when they travel to White County for a scrimmage game.
Where were at right now were still trying to evaluate some of our personnel changes and scheme moves that weve made, Panther head coach Brent Brock said Wednesday. But what Friday allows us to do is to see them against somebody else.
The two teams will square off in a scrimmage format that will feature four, seven-minute quarters with limited contact on special teams. Other than that the idea will be for both squads to be in as close to a game-like situation as is possible.
Brock indicated that he anticipates playing his first-teamers for the majority of the snaps, with some second-string players also seeing action at times on a rotational basis.
Traditionally Jackson County and White County have usually squared off in the preseason for scrimmage games in preparation of the regular season.
I think the challenge it presents to us Friday night is that they have a new coach and were not real sure what theyre going to throw at us. What it does is give us a chance to measure athletes against athletes and allow the kids to make some decisions without coaches holding their hands, Brock explained.
At halftime of the scrimmage the two schools junior varsity teams will play a short scrimmage game also. Admission for the games in Cleveland, Ga. will be $3 for adults and $1 for students. The Panthers open the regular season Aug. 29 at Winder-Barrow.
Greene County scrimmage gives Dragon faithful a taste of the team
The Jefferson football team is slowly progressing towards where their head coach would like them to be.
Following last Fridays scrimmage at Memorial Stadium with Greene County, Dragon head coach Bill Navas stated that he was pleased with the amount of desire his team has been showing, however there is still much work to be done this preseason in his opinion.
Im pleased with the enthusiasm of the kids and the effort that they showed, but we still have a lot of things to work on, Navas said.
We have the potential to be real good as a team, we just have to keep working at it and stay disciplined.
For the most part Jefferson followed a script set prior to the game which allowed most players on the team to see at least some action.
Fullback Wesley Satterfield, filling in for the injured Brandon Vinson, had a productive night at Memorial Stadium. He scored twice in the first half of play on goal line runs, one of which was set up following a 60-plus yard scamper inside the 10-yard line.
I thought our young fullback Wesley Satterfield played with a lot of heart on offense, Navas explained.
Standing out for the Dragons on defense was the play of linebacker Daniel Love, who racked up a number of tackles against an athletic and talented Greene County squad the Navas indicated could end up being a very solid team this year.
We did things the way we needed to do it, Navas said of the game plan and substitution pattern the Dragons used in the scrimmage format.
There was no live kicking in the contest which was divided into four nine-minute quarters. In addition, coaches were out on the field to help guide the offenses.
Friday the Dragons will continue to prepare for the regular season opener at Apalachee (Aug. 29) when they play an intersquad scrimmage beginning at 7 p.m. at Memorial Stadium.
A week later the team travels to Chestatee for their finals preseason tune-up before battling the Wildcats.