Head coach: Eric Rodgers, 3rd year

2018 record: 18-6 / 7-3; tied for second place, District 11-4A; bi-district win over Caddo Mills

2019 District mates: Gainesville, Aubrey, Celina, Sanger, Anna

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

Key newcomers: Bryton Wright, Trinity Needham

Season-opener: Tuesday, Feb. 12, versus Crandall

District-opener: Monday, March 11, versus Gainesville

MELISSA — With four-straight playoff appearances now - including three bi-district wins and an area championship - the Lady Cards are coming off their best district finish in school history. And two years ago, they compiled the most overall wins in school history – 23.

Surely graduation has taken a toll. Wrong.

“Every starter is back,” head coach Eric Rodgers said recently at Melissa High School, a day after the Lady Cards had scrimmaged past Argyle, 11-4 – sans their ace pitcher Alexis Pevehouse, who was out sick. “We’ve been looking for this year for a while.”

Not only is every starter back, but each of their names appeared somewhere on last season’s All-District list. “They have more of a maturity to them,” Rodgers said of his 2019 squad. “You can just tell. They’re older and a lot of them have continued to play and play and play, so they have an understanding for the game that some don’t. We have three that have signed to play in college and a fourth one committed. We have two more that are being looked at. That’s pretty special on its own. We have that much experience on the field. … We’re real excited, but we’re real cautious too. I don’t want to sit here in a couple of months and be wondering what happened.”

Pevehouse returns as last year’s district Co-MVP. A season prior, she was the district’s Offensive MVP. “We don’t do what we’ve done without her effort there,” Rodgers said, “I think she’s got 443 strikeouts in the last two years. That’s by far the most we’ve ever had here. And it’s not just what she does in the circle, she is one of our two or three best hitters too. … The pitcher is usually not voted Offensive MVP but they saw what she can do. She’s a threat.”

Over the last two campaigns, Pevehouse has batted over .500 while logging 89 hits, with 14 home runs.

Looking to the future, freshman Bryton Wright will have opportunities to pitch as well. “Hopefully,” Rodgers said, “we can bring Bryton along as fast or as slow as we need to.”

Behind the plate, Kylee Brakebill is back — the district’s 2018 Catcher of the Year. And she can swing the bat too, hitting over .400 last season. “She’s going to be our lead-off [batter] most likely again,” Rodgers said. “She does a great job of getting up there and getting things going. She brings a little bit of speed there as well.” Brakebill could also work some at second base, Rodgers added. Macy Stewart, an Honorable Mention All-District pick last season at first base, will spell Brakebill some behind the plate. “Both of them are very good catchers,” Rodgers said. “Every time I ask Macy to fill a need, she just does it. Two years ago, we needed a third baseman. She just did it. Last year, we really needed a first baseman. She did it. … She always asks the right questions, she’s always directing people the right way.”

First-Team All-District junior Maggie Rodgers should again see plenty of time at second base but may also roam left field. Rodgers logged a .932 fielding percentage on 74 defensive opportunities last season.

Junior Savannah Rodriguez, a Second-Team All-District shortstop a year ago, could fill roles at short, first base and outfield this season. Senior Audrey Solomon, a First-Team All-District third baseman in 2018, is another .500 hitter. Rodgers said Stewart could also work in at third behind Solomon.

In the outfield, senior Anna Fortenberry definitely owns the turf in center field. “She’s been there for two years,” Rodgers said of the First-Team All-District pick. “She’s so fast and she’s gotten so good. Anytime the ball goes out to her and we see that glove open, I don’t even have to watch — she’s going to catch it. And she started hitting the ball hard last year.”

At other outfield posts, “We’re kind of playing with it,” Rodgers said. Junior Brianna McGee may play right or left and Peyton Free as well, another junior. “She’s got a good chance of starting in the outfield,” Rodgers said of Free. “She’s probably our most improved player over the last couple of years. We’re real happy with what she’s doing in the outfield.”

Besides Wright in the circle, another promising newcomer is junior Trinity Needham who transferred in from McKinney Boyd. She’ll likely see middle-infield duty.

Possible challenges for this team? “We’ve got to go play,” Rodgers said. “We know we have the potential but we’ve got to go do it. I’m trying to preach a lot of team, team, team.

“We’re going to keep working on fundamentals and driving those in. A lot of the drills I get I’ve gotten from Team USA. If Team USA has to continue to do fundamentals then a high school team needs to continue to work on them. … It’s not really what the kids enjoy. They want to hit on the field. They want to see the ball go. What I hope for is that we’ve covered something so much they don’t think about it, they just do it.”

While the Lady Cards have seen success over the last four seasons, a district title and a deep playoff run have eluded them. “They see that we keep stepping up,” Rodgers said. “They’ve seen the process and I think they understand what it takes.” He and the Lady Cards, in discussing season goals recently, basically adopted a first-things-first approach. “A lot of teams want to talk about state-this and state-that. I said, ‘Give me a realistic goal,’ and one of girls said, ‘Let’s win district. We’ve never won district.’ I said, ‘That’s awesome. That’s a great first step. That gets us in the playoffs for sure and puts us in a great situation.’”

Of course, winning that third-round post-season game and beyond are in their sights as well. “State is always a goal,” Rodgers said. “Once we talked about winning the third round, I showed them the remaining path to the state tourney, so they could see just close at the point we would be.”

In Melissa’s newly-aligned District 11-4A, Gainesville and Sanger replace Bonham and Princeton, while Anna, Celina and Aubrey remain. Rodgers said all four of this group’s eventual playoff teams could advance as far as the third round of the playoffs. He added that knowing for sure who’ll be good is a difficult chore. “You could have a team that didn’t win a game last year but if they get five freshmen that can all play, then they’re a completely new team. Gainesville, maybe they’ve been down the last couple of years, but two years prior to that we’re playing them in the Area round. … I do think Aubrey is going to be right there again. And I know Sanger lost their starting pitcher, but they’re Sanger - they always seem to reload. Anna, they always play us tough. I think Coach [Lindsey] Gage is a great coach, does real well. Hannah Howell is a great pitcher for them. Celina lost their best pitcher, but they’ve got two more. So we’ll see.

“We’re not going to overlook anybody,” Rodgers said. “We’re going to respect everybody, but we hope to earn some respect ourselves.”