When high school softball season rolls around, two of the biggest names in Northeast Tennessee are Unicoi County and Daniel Boone.
That hasn’t changed for 2013. The Class AA Lady Blue Devils are expected to be at the forefront of the Three Rivers Conference picture while the Class AAA Lady Trailblazers are expected to be a step ahead in the Big Eight Conference.
The season began Monday, so here’s a look at what area teams have to offer:
With five departing players who signed college scholarships, it would be easy for people to think the Lady Trailblazers are in for a rebuilding season.
Included in the graduation mix was record-setting Natalie Sheffey, who finished as Tennessee’s all-time single-season leader with 19 home runs and 90 RBIs. The Lady Trailblazers hit 50 homers as a team to set the all-time state record.
However, even without players like Sheffey (Carson-Newman) and Jennine Duncan (ETSU), Boone figures to once again be a threat to make a lot of noise.
“We lost a lot of power and speed from last season,” said head coach Rick Wagner, whose state runner-up team went 50-6. “The one thing we do have is pitching, and pitching depth. We are going to have manufacture runs in different ways this year, and hopefully our defense will make enough plays to give us a chance to contend in the Big Eight.”
In the circle, junior ace McKenzi Ferguson returns with state tournament experience. Ferguson was injured a couple of weeks ago, and it was first feared she would miss the entire season. The prognosis was changed to eight weeks, but an MRI revealed she would only be out a few weeks.
Back in the pitching rotation is junior Haley Wagner. She missed the 2012 season with a stress fracture in her back. Also in the pitching mix is freshman Jaclyn Jenkins.
Other returning starters for Boone are senior catcher Kayla Sanders, junior third baseman Hannah Montoya, and senior left fielder Jenna Carmody.
In the starting mix are junior infielder Meredith Good along with Allison Sheffey (of, Sr.) and Allison Littleton (of, Jr.).
Wagner said he also likes the freshman group that includes Jenkins (1b), Kaylin Conkin (of), Abby Harrison (ss), Caroline Wilson (of) and Logan Fisher (of).
“We hope to be playing our best softball when tournament time comes around,” said Wagner.
Once again, the Lady Hilltoppers plan to put the bat on the ball and win their share of games.
“So far they’ve been able to do a pretty good job hitting,” said head coach Jerry Higgins. “We have to hit and score runs. I don’t think we will hold other teams to zero runs very often.
“We lost four three-year starters who all put up big numbers in homers and RBIs, but we found good replacements and we worked hard in the weight room. It has shown quite a bit.”
Leading the way at the plate will be the top two hitters in the lineup: senior twins Hannah Devotie and Megan Devotie.
“They are both slap hitters, but we’ve worked hard with them to be able to swing and hit, too,” said Higgins. “They are key for us getting people on base.”
Vanessa Elliott (p, of, So.) and Sam Bradley (2b, Sr.) will anchor the middle of the lineup. Bradley already has a grand slam to her credit, coming Wednesday against Tennessee High.
Emma Martindale (p, 2b, Jr.) is another factor in the lineup.
In the circle, Higgins will hand the ball to Elliott and Martindale. The starter will depend on matchups, said Higgins.
“The biggest thing is just throwing strikes, and getting people out in the field,” said Higgins. “I don’t think we will have a whole lot of strikeouts. We just want ground balls, and keeping the ball in the park will be the main goal.”
Defensively, the Lady Hilltoppers will get a lot of help from Jordan Rush (c, Sr.), Alyssa Loveday (1b, Sr.) and Erin Gorzka (of, Jr.).
“Jordan means a lot to us, and Alyssa is a huge part of the defense,” said Higgins.
Also, senior Allison Poget and freshman Megan Maupin are battling for playing time.
Overall, things look pretty good, said Higgins.
“Scoring a few runs and playing good defense will be the key,” he said. “I think expectations are the same as last year. Forty wins is a lofty goal to reach, but we’re very capable of it. We have the same goal this year of winning the conference and the district, and getting a chance to go on in the region.”
Youth is the key word for the Lady Pioneers, who could be building something special.
It starts in the circle with sophomore Madison Grindstaff, who will take care of the majority of the pitching.
“Toward the end of last year, she really improved,” said Crockett head coach Carla Weems. “We expect her to do an outstanding job.”
Cloee Ann Smith, a freshman, will also see time in the circle.
The lineup is anchored by Jackie Loyd. The senior catcher, a four-year starter, has signed with Tennessee Wesleyan.
“She is very dedicated to what she does,” said Weems. “She does things for the right reasons, and she’s a good all-around athlete.”
Another big bat in the lineup is carried by Gail Hooks. She is a senior first baseman.
Other keys in the lineup are freshmen Madison Tarlton (cf) and Lilly Ayers (ss). Sam Fox (2b, So.) is another important player along with sophomore third baseman Jessica Leach.
“I do have a lot of young kids,” said Weems. “The freshmen and sophomores are very talented.
“We were 4-2 against Daniel Boone in the top of the seventh inning. We are a step or two away from being at the top, where we need to be.
“I see us finishing in the top three or four in the conference. We are a couple errors away from being a good team.”
With plenty of experience and a loaded group of young players, the Lady Blue Devils should once again be in the conversation across the state.
Leading the way are five seniors: pitcher Kacy Silvers, center fielder Chelsey Gardner, shortstop Jessica Presser, catcher Ashley Starnes, and right fielder Cheyenne Delffs.
Silvers returns to the circle after a good junior season.
“She has been through the wars,” said Unicoi head coach Grady Lingerfelt. “She has pitched travel ball, and has always done well.”
Lingerfelt said he also likes the pitching work of junior Kaylee Nicholson and sophomore Tiffany Laughren.
“All three of them are good enough to pitch at any time,” said Lingerfelt. “All three are very good.”
At the plate, Lingerfelt said he expects good things from Gardner, a four-year starter in center field.
“She’s a very talented athlete,” said Lingerfelt.
Delffs, Presser and Starnes — who has signed with Walters State — are also in the hitting mix.
“We’re solid from top to bottom, and there’s an awful lot of good young players,” said Lingerfelt.
Included in that mix is Laughren, who led the team in hitting as a freshman.
“She can play anywhere,” said Lingerfelt. “She can play all nine positions. She’s just an athlete.”
Also in mix for the Lady Blue Devils are Grayson Goddard (2b, Jr.), Brooke Strother (3b, Jr.) and power-hitting first baseman Taylor Wright, who is a sophomore.
Lingerfelt said he believes his team is capable of big things.
“We got embarrassed last year at Gibbs (in the sectional), but we’ve learned from it and grown from it,” said Lingerfelt.
It starts in the circle for the Lady Cyclones with junior Lindsey Cunningham taking the ball.
“She is doing really well,” said head coach Leanne Click. “She has a lot of pitches and can hit her spots really well.”
Freshman Emily Kiser will be Cunningham’s backup this year.
Leading the way at the plate is junior utility player Danielle Loving.
“She plays everywhere,” said Click. “And she’s a very strong hitter.”
Another key player is Caley Hodge, a junior catcher who missed the basketball season because of a leg injury.
“It’s fully healed but she still has pain,” said Click. “It doesn’t hurt her to catch, but she has trouble hitting and running.”
Another big stick is carried by Reazyn DeMoss. The senior shortstop may also spell Hodge behind the plate some this season.
Also making things happen in the lineup are Cunningham, Sophie Bremer (2b, Sr.) and Ashleigh Dykes (cf, Sr.).
Emily Dugger (of, Sr.), Summer Reece (1b, Jr.) and Unaka transfer Madison Weaver (3b, Jr.) will also play important roles along with outfielder Whitney Guinn.
“If we keep our hitting up, we’ve got a good shot at the conference,” said Click. “We don’t have any weak positions.”
With Brittany Morefield back in the circle for the fourth season, the Lady Warriors are expected to be in the title chase.
“I expect (Morefield) to provide leadership, and pitch most of the games,” said Happy Valley head coach Mike Dorsey.
When Morefield doesn’t pitch, Dorsey said he will hand the ball to freshman Kalee Johnson.
“She’s really good,” said Dorsey. “She throws hard for a freshman.”
At the plate, Brooke Simmons is the top hitter. The junior third baseman hit .505 last season.
Other key sticks in the lineup are Allison Williams (rf, Jr.) and Kaylee Street (cf, So.). Also, Dorsey said he expects good things from Kaitlin Campbell (2b, Jr.) and Kiara Coffey (c, Jr.).
“I don’t think I have an automatic out in the lineup,” said Dorsey.
Overall, Dorsey said he believes his team will be ultra-competitive.
“I expect us to compete with the Science Hills, Daniel Boones and Unicoi Countys this year,” he said. “I think we can play with anybody. Whether we win, who knows?”
The Lady Patriots lost some things to graduation, but Tommy Forrester said he believes this could be his best team in his four years as head coach.
“It’s probably the strongest team we’ve had, but I also think it is the toughest the Three Rivers has been,” said Forrester.
Courtney Leonard, a junior, takes over in the circle. She got good experience last season, throwing almost 80 innings.
“I think she’s one of the better ones around,” said Forrester. “I think she is really tough. We have big expectations.”
At the plate, East will count on Leonard as well. Also expected to make major contributions are Madeline Standbridge (lf, p, Jr.) along with three seniors: Brittany Scott (c), Ashlee Minor (ss), and Karissa White (cf).