Just like any softball season, the Three Rivers Conference starts with everybody chasing Unicoi County.
The Lady Blue Devils suffered a key injury loss but are again favored to win the league title. This year they could get a very strong challenge from Elizabethton.
Also in the mix near the top are Happy Valley and Sullivan East.
Johnson County could give some of those teams a battle while Sullivan South and Sullivan North will likely have to scra tch and claw for victories.
Here’s a quick look at the league:
Record: 2-0 (league), 2-1 (overall).
Strength: A powerful hitting lineup.
Main focus: Gaining some experience.
Top pitchers: Tiffany Laughren (Jr., RH) and Kaylee Nicholson (Sr., RH).
Top hitter: Laughren (Sr., 1B)
It would be difficult to estimate the impact of losing junior first baseman Taylor Wright to an ACL injury (she had surgery Tuesday). It wasn’t just losing her 2013 totals of 17 homers and .540 batting average, but her protection for Laughren (23 homers, .530 average) in the lineup.
Without Wright behind her, Laughren will likely see fewer pitches to hit.
“She has to be more patient, and take what they give her,” said Lady Blue Devils’ head coach Grady Lingerfelt. “I hope they won’t pitch around her, but that’s what it has been in the first three games.”
There is still plenty of sting in the lineup with seniors Brooke Strother (cf), Grayson Goddard (2b) and Nicholson (1b) leading the way. And there’s plenty of thump with Destinie Hayes (Jr., c), Cierra Jackson (Jr., 3b) and Cassie Foster (Jr., of).
“Destinie has a lot of power, and Cierra can hit the ball a mile,” said Lingerfelt.
Once those players find a groove, Unicoi should still be a postseason force.
“I think we can,” said Lingerfelt. “I’ve got a lot of confidence. This is a good strong team. We’ve got a lot of starters who could have started last year, like Haley Webb (Jr., ss).”
In the circle, Laughren and Nicholson will once again pitch the vast majority of the innings.
Lingerfelt said the defense can be as good as any team in the area, despite a tough start in the season-opening loss to Science Hill.
On the schedule, Lingerfelt said he’s looking forward to the Nuclear Fuels Services tourney, which is scheduled for March 28-29 in Erwin and includes Knox Bearden, Science Hill, Dobyns-Bennett, Volunteer and David Crockett.
Record: 3-0 (league) 3-0 (overall).
Strength: Seven seniors with experience together.
Main focus: Game consistency.
Top pitcher: Lindsey Cunningham (Sr., RH).
Top hitters: Caley Hodge (Sr., c), Danielle Loving (Sr., ss).
It could be a special season for the Lady Cyclones. With a roster weighted at the top by seven seniors who have been on the field together for a long time, Elizabethton figures to be in the mix for a championship chase.
“Hopefully this is going to be one of the best seasons in recent years, due to the maturity and discipline of the team,” said head coach Leanne Click. “We also have some great underclassmen who play large roles in the success of the team. We are definitely not lacking in athletic ability this year.”
Leading the way at the plate are a quartet of really good sticks, including Hodge. She has hit three home runs in three games this season, and has plus power.
“Caley is a wall behind the plate, and is almost always guaranteed to get on base, usually extra bases,” said Click.
Loving is one of the top hitters in Northeast Tennessee while Lindsey Cunningham (Sr., p) and Chesnee Hammonds (Jr., cf) are also capable of aluminum assault.
“Danielle was the MVP last year,” said Click. “She hits the ball with consistency and is extremely aggressive on the bases.”
In the circle, Cunningham gives the Lady Cyclones a pitcher who can take on the best bats other teams have to offer.
“She is our all-star pitcher who keeps the defense going,” said Click.
Record: 1-1 (league) 4-1 (overall).
Strength: Deep lineup.
Main focus: Pitching depth.
Top pitchers: Kalee Johnson (So., RH), Brooke Simmons (Sr., RH).
Top hitter: Simmons.
There aren’t many worries for head coach Mike Dorsey when his team comes to the plate.
“Every hitter in the lineup should be a tough out,” said Dorsey. “And we should have a good defense. But I worry about our depth, and pitching depth.”
Leading the way at the plate has been sophomore catcher Kenzie Davis (.636 average with 5 RBIs), sophomore left fielder Sydney Puckett (.545 with 4 RBIs and 5 steals) and junior shortstop Krisley Roberts (.529, 5 doubles). Also junior Kaylee Street is hitting .500 with 6 steals).
“Our leading hitter the last three years, Brooke Simmons, is off to a slow start for her,” said Dorsey.
Record: 1-1 (league) 2-4 (overall).
Strength: Team togetherness.
Main focus: Gaining experience.
Top pitchers: Brianna Snyder (So., RH), Cindi Edington (Jr., RH), Hope Nelson (Jr., RH).
Top hitter: Edington and Jayme Jennings (So.).
Injuries have hurt the Lady Longhorns from the get-go, so things have already been challenging.
“Hope Nelson is out for four weeks with a broken bone at the base of her left thumb,” said head coach Dana Smith. “And we lost our starting center fielder, (junior) Abby Reece, before the season started to ACL surgery.”
Snyder and Edington will handle all of the pitching duties until Nelson is able to return.
At the plate, Smith said she will rely on Edington and Jennings to get things rolling. Edington will take over in center field when she isn’t pitching.
Overall, it’s going to be a process of trying to compete while gaining experience.
“We will have growing pains this season as our starting freshmen get game time,” said Smith.
Record: 2-1 (league) 2-1 (overall).
Strength: Offense. Deep lineup.
Main focus: Improving decision making.
Top pitcher: Courtney Leonard (Sr., RH).
Top hitter: Leonard, Madison Standbridge (Sr., 1b).
The Lady Patriots should be able to mix it up with some of the top teams in the area, with Leonard at the forefront of the success equation.
“Courtney is an outstanding player, and an excellent leader for our team,” said head coach Michael Forrester. “She is our No. 1 pitcher, and she gives us a great chance to win. When she’s not pitching, she’s a very good defensive third baseman.
“In short, our team has a lot of confidence in Courtney. I expect a great senior year for her.”
It should be a good hitting team as the Patriots’ lineup is strong throughout. Leonard hit .374 last season with 26 RBIs while Standbridge batted .316 with seven homers and 33 RBIs.
Also wielding threatening sticks are Ashlyn Douglas (Sr., 3b), Rachel Stidham (Sr., 2b), Lexy Umbarger (So., cf), Brooke McElyea (So., rf), Hannah Gobble (So., c, batting .800 this season with 5 RBIs in three games), and freshman shortstop Kelseay Smith.
“Our lineup is very deep,” said Forrester. “We feel we have tough outs from one through nine. Our hitters are very confident and aggressive.
“We have only three starters returning to the same position as last year. So we sometimes struggle with the instinctive plays, and our decision-making on defense has been questionable at times.comments powered by Disqus