The Lady Patriots are favored to win the Three Rivers Conference softball championship, but expect strong challenges from Unicoi County and Elizabethton.
Happy Valley and Johnson County also should be solid. Sullivan South and Sullivan Central figure into the mix as well.
Three Rivers Conference predictions
1. Sullivan East
2. Unicoi County
4. Johnson County
5. Happy Valley
6. Sullivan South
7. Sullivan Central
Lady Patriots coach Michael Forrester said he’ll use a three-player rotation in the circle this year.
“We have three pitchers we plan to use interchangeably,” Forrester said. “They are all very capable of winning big games for us.”
Seniors Katelyne Loudy and Kylee Wolfe will be joined by Jillian Shackelford in the rotation.
At the plate, Forrester should have a tough lineup. Included in the mix is Wolfe, who also plays third base and hit .452 with nine homers and 46 RBIs last year. Also solid are Chelsea Sams (c, Sr., 9 HR, 39 RBIs), Loudy and Cayden Bawgus (1b, So.).
“We have very high hopes,” Forrester added. “We return the nucleus of our team that was one run away from our first regional tournament in Class AA. The first goal is to win the Three Rivers Conference. The second goal is to get over the hump and make the regional tournament. Ultimately, our hope is to play in the state tournament.”
Forrester said East has incredible depth.
“All nine players in the lineup are dangerous,” he said. “And we have players on the bench who can step in if someone is slumping.”
The Lady Blue Devils return a couple of key players from last year and will lean on them again.
Pitcher Allee Griffith and catcher Halie Hawkins are senior standouts. Griffith has signed to play softball at Milligan and Hawkins has signed with the Buffaloes for track.
“This is the third year Haley has started,” coach Grady Lingerfelt said. “She’s probably the best athlete we have. Allee wound up pitching a lot of key games at the end of last year, and got us through some games.”
Hawkins, a catcher, is one of the team’s top hitters along with Cassie Salvage (2b), Chloe Powers (lf) and Carly Kinsler (1b), all seniors.
Coach Ken Hardin said catcher Haley Fair will be an integral part of the team.
“She will lead the team from behind the plate,” Hardin said. “She will have to work the pitchers and be a coach on the field.”
In the circle will be senior Hannah Edwards, freshman Madisun Pritchard and junior Marley Wagner.
At the plate, the Lady Cyclones expect production from Fair, senior outfielder Kira Dillard and senior Autumn Hensley.
“We hope to continue to be competitive against everyone we play,” Hardin said.
New coach Greg Reece wants to get the building blocks in place for the Lady Longhorns.
“First we want to change the culture, the mindset and how we work with our feeder program,” Reece said. “Secondly we want to seek improvement on a daily basis. If we do these things, we can begin consistently winning the games we should win, and in time, compete with the better programs.”
Johnson County will go to battle with junior Hannah Brooks as its top pitcher. Brooks will also be one of the top hitters and play third base when not pitching. She totaled 17 home runs in her first two seasons and was intentionally walked over 30 times last year.
Other top hitters are sophomore catcher Emily Miller and junior first baseman Natalie Winters. Other key players include seniors Bella Miller (lf) and Lindsey Wills (2b).
“They have been outstanding leaders during this transition,” Reece said.
The Lady Warriors face the challenge of playing away from home at least through this month while their field heals from the recent flooding. Coach Cody Hyder remains optimistic.
“We just want to continue to get better as the season progresses,” he said.
Leading the way in the circle is right-handed sophomore Abby Holt.
At the plate, the Lady Warriors will try to get things started with Sadie Havner (3b, Sr.), Macy Puckett (1b, Sr.) and Olivia Absher (ss, So.).
It would be hard to pick a top pitcher, said coach Chris Sturgill.
“I have two juniors who are equally good and important,” Sturgill said.
The right-handers are Nicole Troutman and Tara Shivley.
When South is batting, senior shortstop Laura Dade, junior third baseman Allison Chapman and Troutman lead the way. Leadoff hitter Makkenzie Compton (cf, Jr.) also should help.
“Her work ethic, the way she carries herself and way she treats her teammates makes her a great leader,” Sturgill said of Compton. “Her versatility, athleticism and speed make her a huge asset to our team. She sets the tone as leadoff hitter and can really put pressure on a defense.”
The coach is hoping for a fun year.
“Our hopes are to improve, be a family and have fun each day we set foot on the diamond,” he said. “We are a very young team this year.”
The Lady Cougars have some upperclassmen with ability, said coach Andrea Werner.
“I have five seniors who all stand out,” Werner noted. “Madison Flannagan is a leader who has accepted her role with a smile. Alexa Chandler is a powerhouse hitter. Ashley Steadman is determined to be the best at whatever she does, and Madison Horne works hard to keep her team focused. Faith Campbell’s improvement and hard work show all the qualities of a leader.”
In the circle will be Sydney Snapp. The junior will get offensive support from Courtney Willis (cf, Jr.), Jasmine Sheffield (ss, So.) and Chandler (1b, Sr.).
“I hope to have a winning season and pass on the love and passion I have for the game to my players,” Werner added.