Head coach: Lindsey Gage, 4th year

2018 record: 10-10 / 2-8; fifth place, District 11-4A

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

Key returning players: Hannah Howell, Shelby Dombrowski, Amber Thille, Madison Gaston, Kallie Harris, Hannah Morland

Season-opener: Feb. 11, versus Van Alstyne

District-opener: March 11, at Sanger

ANNA – After sixth- and fifth-place district finishes over the last two seasons, something extra appears at the bottom of this year’s Lady Coyotes schedule – in all caps: WE WILL WIN. It’s a mindset head coach Lindsey Gage hopes to instill in her charges as they look to keep moving up.

“We’re trying to start new traditions,” she said recently from her office at Anna Middle School. “The kids are working hard. I’m excited. They’re really motivated. I think that’s different than what we’ve had the last few years. … I think they’re finally understanding what I expect from them.”

The Lady Coyotes last reached post-season play in 2014. “Obviously, making the playoffs is our goal this year,” Gage said. “I feel like we’ve gotten close enough now where it’s to the point we’ve got to be there. And I think we can be there.” Another goal, Gage said, is to always compete. “They’re competitive, but I need them to be competitive in every aspect - in softball, in the classroom, in practice. We’re to the point where being competitive is going to get us where we need to be.

“When I came in they didn’t have a lot of success but they were good kids. I was just trying to get them to understand what it felt like to win. They were OK with being average at first then they got a taste of what it was like to win. … Two years ago we won six or seven games and last year we won 10 games. Each year they’re getting better and better.”

Joining Gage’s staff this season is varsity assistant coach Jennifer Sluder, the former head coach at Pottsboro. Veteran assistant Jacqueline Rosson will lead the JV squad.

Gone now are graduated Lady Coyotes Madison Davis, a First-Team All-District second baseman and three-year starter, and pitcher/first baseman Grace Price, a Second-Team All-District pick in 2017.

“[Davis] did a great job there,” Gage said. “She was a tough loss, but she mentored some of those younger girls that got backup time behind her in practice, and at the JV level. I’m hoping we can find someone that can do as good a job as she did. … Grace was a vocal leader and a kid that did everything right, and kids followed in behind. She’ll really be missed in practice and the games.”

This year’s Lady Coyotes roster includes one senior and three juniors. “We’re going to be young again,” Gage said. “But some of those kids that had to play as freshmen have a year of experience. They may not have been ready last year but they had to do it.”

Hannah Howell, a district Co-Utility Player of the Year last season, is the lone Lady Coyotes senior. A top starting pitcher in 2018, Howell was also a talented hand at shortstop and first base, and will again play there in the coming campaign. “She’s a great leader on the field,” Gage said. “When she’s in the circle, everyone else feels a lot more comfortable.”

Pitching also will be last year’s district Newcomer of the Year, junior Amber Thille. “She’s expected to play a big role for our team this year,” Gage said. “She can pitch, she can play first base and she plays center field for us a little bit.”

With Howell still in basketball, Thille has been getting plenty of work in the circle. “She did really well in our scrimmages,” Gage said. “Sherman didn’t score on us and Bells scored one against her. She’s proving that she deserves some time out there.”

The presence of Howell and Thille point to pitching as a team strength for now, Gage said.

Sophomore Kallie Harris is back for Year 2 at catcher. “She did a really good job for us behind the plate last year,” Gage said. “I’m expecting big things from her.”

Second base is “wide open,” Gage said, adding that several girls are getting a look there. Sophomore Madison Gaston returns at third, where she stepped up in a tough situation last year. “She kind of got thrown in there as a freshman and she did a good job for us,” Gage said. “I think this year she’ll be able to relax a little bit, she’ll understand the pace of the game.”

Honorable Mention All-District shortstop Shelby Dombrowski is back for her junior season, with Gage also eyeing a freshman in a possible back-up role.

In the outfield, Second-Team All-District junior Hannah Morland will anchor things from right field. “She made some great defensive plays for us last year,” Gage said. “I’m looking forward to seeing her back out there. A little more consistency at the plate for her would be really big. But defensively, she was great.”

Sophomore Madi McPherson - and Thille when not pitching - will handle centerfield duties. “[Madi] didn’t see a lot of playing time last year but she knew her role and she did it well,” Gage said. “This year she’s going to be expected to go out there and play that position for us.”

Left field is still open at this point. “We have a couple of different girls out there right now,” Gage said, noting that sophomore Qua Fisher may fill the position after basketball.

As for the team’s firepower at the plate, that’s “still to be determined,” Gage said. “I think we have gotten better, we’re more relaxed at the plate now. We saw a lot of pitches and fouled a lot of balls off in our scrimmages - and we faced two really good pitchers out of Sherman and Bells.”

Howell, Thille and Gaston swung big bats for the Lady Coyotes last season. Along with tossing 86 strikeouts, Howell led Anna with a .379 batting average and she slapped a team-high seven home runs. Thille hit .365 and her on-base percentage of .459 was tops on the squad, as were her 11 walks and 19 runs scored. Gaston posted a .328 batting average with 17 RBIs.

“I think this is the first year we’ll be able to run a little bit,” Gage said. “We have some girls that can move on the bases and that’s fun for me. It puts pressure on the defense — there’s other things to worry about instead of just the hitter. We had a little bit of speed last year but not like we have this year.”

The Lady Coyotes had a fine start in 2018, getting to 7-3 in non-district play. “We were playing really well,” Gage said. “Of course, when we got into district, the level of pitching was a little bit different. That’s something we struggled with. There was some really good pitching talent in that district.

“I think we showed that we can play with people. We still made people nervous despite what our record was. People were a little more wary of what we were able to do. That was a fun group of kids. They were never down. … They were still trying to win throughout the last game in district even though at that point it didn’t matter. I was really proud of the girls for that.”

Gage said every team in newly-aligned District 11-4A - with Bonham/Princeton out, Sanger/Gainesville in - should be plenty competitive. “We’ve seen that in volleyball, we’re seeing it in basketball. I don’t think that really changed. … I know Melissa has a lot coming back. I know Aubrey has a lot coming back. Celina lost their main pitcher but they’ve always put together good teams. I never take anyone lightly and our kids don’t either.”