Head coach: Eric Rodgers, 2nd year

2017 record: 23-7, 6-4; fourth place District 11-4A; lost to Crandall in bi-district playoffs

District mates: Bonham, Aubrey, Celina, Princeton, Anna

Key players lost to graduation: Becca Pittman, Katee Johnson

Key returning players: Alexis Pevehouse, Audrey Solomon, Kylee Brakebill, Maggie Rodgers, Savannah Rodriguez, Anna Fortenberry, Macy Stewart

Key newcomers: Hannah Coyner, Brianna McGee, Peyton Free

Season-opener: Tuesday, Feb. 13, versus Sunnyvale

District-opener: Tuesday, March 13, versus Anna

MELISSA — The Lady Cardinals’ achievements last season were many, including most wins in program history (23); a third-straight playoff appearance; victory over Princeton for the first time — then beating them a second time; most wins by a pitcher (19) in program history; and leading No. 3-ranked Crandall late in their first-round playoff matchup.

At the other end of the spectrum, after spending the first half of the season in first place Melissa lost three of three of its last five district contests for a 6-4 fourth-place finish, one game back of a three-way tie for first. For Lady Cards head coach Eric Rodgers, that finish is, No. 1, nothing to be ashamed of in this district, and, No. 2, something he’s taking action to address for perhaps a stronger finish this time.

“There were four teams in our district that were at one point in the Top 15 [in the state],” he says. “So you can say we tapered off or you can say, ‘Hey, we have a tough district.’ Everybody but Aubrey, we either beat both times or we split with them. … I tell our girls all the time, we are not embarrassed and we have nothing to hang our head about finishing fourth in this district.”

The action he’s taking to improve late-season performance involves increased conditioning. Rodgers says due to last year’s youth a determination was made to focus primarily on fundamentals. By season’s midpoint, he says, “We weren’t out of shape, I just think we weren’t working out as much as we had before because we were doing so much of our softball skills. We’re making sure we’re going to build in conditioning more and more this year.”

Rodgers says merely making the playoffs isn’t the goal anymore. “Hopefully, it’s more of a standard. Now — saying that, we’ve still got to go fight for it. Nobody’s going to give it to us.”

Adding to the excitement this year, the Lady Cards officially inaugurate their new turf field at the Melissa Sports Facility on Feb. 12 versus Sunnyvale. Just practicing at the new venue already has Rodgers “speechless.” “Maybe I’m biased,” he says, “but it’s the best turf field I’ve ever been on. Every day we’re out there, one of us coaches will stay, ‘I can’t believe this is ours.’”

Rodgers’ junior-loaded 2018 team returns seven starters, though some have changed positions. At the plate, he’ll again send a lineup that can swing the bat. “I don’t see anyone who is going to walk up there and be scared,” he says. “And when you’re in the batter’s box, confidence helps.”

Back for her junior year is standout pitcher Alexis Pevehouse, a record-setting 19-game winner last season and the district’s Offensive MVP. “She’ll hold down the [pitching] circle,” Rodgers says. “She’ll also be our lead-off hitter. And I think she’s better than she was last year.”

Pevehouse, a University of Arkansas-Monticello commit, finished 2017 with 200 strikeouts and a 1.97 ERA and also led the team with a .538 batting average, including 49 hits, 41 RBIs and eight home runs.

First-team all-district shortstop and big-hitter Audrey Solomon also returns, though she moves to third, “her natural position,” Rodgers says. “Audrey is a quiet leader who commands the respect of opposing pitchers. Her home runs [11] and RBIs [46] were among the state leaders during the regular season.” As a sophomore clean-up hitter in 2017, Solomon hit .455.

Junior Kylee Brakebill, last year’s district Newcomer of the Year at catcher and a .416 hitter in the 2-hole, has been working some in the infield. Rodgers says she did so well batting second last season, “I think I’m looking for another 2-hole so I can bump her back a little bit.”

Junior Macy Stewart, at third base last year, will now work at first and also catch. Rodgers notes she batted seventh last year because he needed some power there. “And it came up a couple of times where she ended the game for us because we had a good bat in that spot.”

Maggie Rodgers, a second-team all-district outfielder last season as a freshman, moves to second base and second-team all-district sophomore Savannah Rodriguez slides from second to short stop. Beyond the diamond, junior second-team all-district outfielder Anna Fortenberry returns to center field. “Center field is nailed down,” Rodgers says. “Right and left field, we’ll see. There are going to be some newcomers there.” One of those, senior Hannah Coyner up from JV, may play in right, he says.

As for the district race, Rodgers says, “I think Celina is still going to be pretty tough. Their pitcher is back and they’ve got some very good hitters. Bonham, everybody had them down and out last year then they won seven in a row. They’ve still got their pitcher and some good pieces around her. Aubrey, when the dust settled last year they ended up with the No. 1 seed. Anna, they’ve got a great coach. They were tough last year. And Princeton, if you take them lightly, you’re going to get beat.”

“Our challenge is going to be our depth,” Rodgers says. “Once we get our girls back from being sick and basketball season ends and we get a couple of those girls, eventually we’re going to be alright.” (Rodgers adds that he hopes the basketball team “tears up the playoffs, has a good run.”)