Melissa and Anna softball are back — one team with a new head coach, one team with a new weapon on offense; one looking to bounce back after a tough season, one looking to build on post-season success.
And just so you know: After last year’s UIL realignment, Anna and Melissa remain paired together in the new District 11-4A. Gone are Quinlan Ford and Nevada Community; moved in are Celina and Aubrey. “Old friends” Bonham and Princeton remain.
Now — batter up!
Melissa Lady Cardinals
Head coach: Eric Rodgers, first year
Last year’s record: 17-16 overall / 5-6, third place in district; Area champions
Key players lost: Bailey Church, Bailey Ifft, Melissa Ellis
Key returning players: Becca Pittman, Natalia Cox, Audrey Solomon, Alexis Pevehouse
Season-opener: Monday, Feb. 13, at Gunter
District-opener: Tuesday, March 14, at Anna
The Lady Cardinals are coming off their first-ever Area-championship season and new head coach Eric Rodgers says the team is poised to push further in 2017. Rodgers, by the way, may be new at Melissa’s helm but he’s not new to this team. He’s been a Lady Cards assistant coach for the past four years, having served with former head coach Wendy Lowe. He was there in 2015 when Melissa made its first-ever playoff appearance, losing to Gainesville in the area round. And he was on board last season when the Lady Cards returned to the Area finals and beat Gainesville, 5-4.
“Coach Lowe, she did a great job,” Rodgers said. “I enjoyed working with her.”
Losing to Krum in last year’s regional quarterfinals will provide motivation for Melissa’s current band of players as they seek a deeper post-season run.
“Boy, Krum was good,” Rodgers recalls. “We played with them for about three-and-a-half innings and they were just — they were phenomenal. … They’ve been excited,” Rodgers said of his current team. “They’ve been ready to go. They just seem to be gelling, even though we lost a few (players).”
The Lady Cards will definitely miss the services of All-State catcher and No. 4 hitter Bailey Church, now playing for Lee University in Cleveland, Tenn. She was also twice named the district’s Defensive Player of the Year.
“She was our first-ever All-State player,” Rodgers says. “And she’s our first-ever signee to go and play in college.”
More cleats to fill include those of centerfielder Melissa Ellis, a back-to-back unanimous All-District pick, and those of All-District shortstop Bailey Ifft. “So we lost our 1, 2 and 3 hitters,” Rodgers said, with a laugh. He added, though, “Offensively, we have some solid hitters [this year] and I also believe our pitching will take some pressure off our defense.”
The Lady Cards do return talent, including Becca Pittman, a four-year starter at first base.
“She’s going to be our clean-up hitter,” Rodgers said. “She’s definitely our senior leader.”
Junior pitcher/second baseman Natalia Cox is also back, a key factor, Rodgers said, in Melissa reaching the playoffs these last two seasons. Rodgers also points to shortstop/third baseman Audrey Solomon as a key returning player.
“She’s probably going to be our No. 3 hitter,” Rodgers said. “She’s going to do a good job for us. I expect big things out of her this year.”
Then there’s sophomore Alexis Pevehouse, who recently moved into the district.
“She’s going to pitch, play shortstop and probably be our lead-off (batter),” Rodgers said. “She’ll fit right in with the rest of the girls real well.”
Rodgers said the mood of this year’s team is, “‘We know what we’re working for now, so let’s keep going. Let’s see what we can do,’” he said. “And I think they believe that. They believe, ‘Hey, we can get back to the regional quarterfinals. Why not? Why can’t we go farther?’”
Rodgers offered some comments about how the district may play out this year.
“Bonham’s going to be right up there,” he said. “They were young last year with a great pitcher. They lost two or three seniors, but they’re still going to be tough to beat. Princeton, they lost several seniors, maybe six, but they’re still Princeton. You’re not going to go in and beat them without being on your ‘A’ game. … Celina, I don’t know. I know they’ve got a good tradition. And I know they’ve got a pretty good pitcher and a few pieces around her. I know they’re going to be tough. Aubrey, they’ve got some young kids, kind of like me. Then we have Anna, they were young last year. They came on strong late in the year. So you can’t overlook anybody. I’ve told my bunch we could finish first through fifth.”
Rodgers said he thinks the Lady Cards strength this season will team chemistry.
“They’re talking at practice, they’re picking each other up, they’re complimenting each other,” he said. “… It’s awesome to have that already, and we haven’t even started.”
As for challenges — besides replacing hitters at the top of his order — Rodgers says Melissa’s youth may present some, as well. The Lady Cards’ roster includes only two seniors and two juniors. “As a coach, I’ve got to make sure I understand, hey, there are some 14- and 15-year-olds on the field. So you’ve got to know when to push them and know when to back off. And know when to praise them — which will be a lot. But they’re a great group to be around. They’re fun to be around.”
Anna Lady Coyotes
Head coach: Lindsey Lacy, second year
Last year’s record: 6-14 overall / 2-8, 6th place in district
Key players lost: Bailey Prince, Ashlynn Love, Kendal Howard
Key returning players: Hannah Howell, Grace Price, Madison Davis
Season-opener: Tuesday, Feb. 14, vs. Van Alstyne
District-opener: Tuesday, March 14, vs. Melissa
The Lady Coyotes look to rebound from last season’s 2-8 district mark and they appear to have the head coach to do it. Prior to her arrival at Anna before last season, Lindsey Lacy was head coach at Whitesboro for two years where she led the Lady Bearcats to the regional finals in 2014 and to the area round of the playoffs the next year.
“We’re going to be really young this year — really young the next few years,” Lacy said. “That’s always something to look forward to, though. … I think these younger girls are going to bring a lot of energy to the team and I think that’s something that we need and that we’ll feed on.”
Lacy notes that she’ll have only two seniors and three juniors on the team.
“So, yeah, I’ll rely a lot on these younger girls,” Lacy said. “And I hope they don’t get nervous, me throwing them into the fire. But I think that they’ll handle it well.”
Anna will be without some key players from last season, including First-Team All-District catcher Bailey Prince.
“She was a really good leader for us last year,” Lacy said, “and she was great behind the plate.”
Ashlynn Love, All-District Honorable Mention at third base, and Kendal Howard at first have also graduated.
“(Ashlynn) and Kendal were both very vocal and very competitive,” Lacy said. “And I think that brought a lot of positive energy to the field.”
Gone also are Ashley Rose, a Second-Team All-District outfielder, and All-District Honorable Mention outfielder Reigny Jeffrey.
But Anna returns a good nucleus of talent, including sophomore Hannah Howell, last year’s unanimous pick as district Newcomer of the Year. Howell pitched and played shortstop as a freshman last season – and folks noticed.
“With us not having a great record, that just shows you that those other coaches saw what I saw, and what everybody else saw, in Hannah,” Lacy said. “She is a great, great softball player. … I think that she’s one of those kids that only get better as time goes on.”
Junior pitcher Grace Price, an All-District Honorable Mention pick last season, is also back.
“She’ll play first base a little bit for us this year,” Lacy said. “She pitched great last year. We struggled defensively behind her, but as far as her pitches and everything that she does out there, she was great for us.”
Another returning junior is Madison Davis, a Second-Team All-District infielder last year.
“I think, defensively, we’ll be a lot better than we were last year,” Lacy said.
Lacy noted two freshmen in particular who should make an impact for the Lady Coyotes: Shelby Dombrowski at catcher and third baseman/shortstop Lauren Kerns.
“She’s very good back there,” Lacy says of Dombrowski. “She’s going to help us out a lot.”
Lacy says her incoming freshmen will also bring speed to the Lady Coyotes’ lineup, which could help make up for the loss of some big hitters with a more aggressive style on the base paths.
“Typically, if that’s something that we can do, then that’s something I will do,” she said. “Speed is very hard to defend and it makes people nervous. It puts pressure on them. That’s something that we couldn’t do last year. We just didn’t have the capability to do that. … It’s just a change of pace. It brings a new life out there.”
Lacy recalls speed being a big part of her team’s attack when she played for Southeastern Oklahoma State University.
“I kind of feel like I have a lot of knowledge in that area,” she said. “I think us being young will play to our strength and our weakness. It’ll be a lot of positive energy. We’ll be very hungry. … If we have a bad game, you obviously don’t want to feed off that for the next game, but that comes with being young and not understanding how to take a loss. … We’re going to face some adversity. When more than half of your team are 14- and 15-year-olds, you know you’re definitely going to face some adversity. But, hopefully, it’s just something that they overcome easily and they keep fighting and they want more.”
As for the district race, Lacy says, “Princeton was very tough last year. Bonham was very tough. Then us gaining Aubrey and Celina, they both had really good seasons last year. So I think our district’s going to be really competitive. It’s one of those districts that whoever’s playing well is going to come out on top. We don’t have a bad team in our district.”