By Rick Atkinson, For the Anna-Melissa Tribune

MELISSA – Last season was indeed a remarkable run for Melissa’s Lady Cardinals. As a 5-5 fourth seed from District 11-4A, this talented bunch stormed all the way to the fourth round of the playoffs – the regional tournament – for the first time in program history, posting a school-record 26 wins along the way.

To make it even sweeter, the Lady Cards swept undefeated district-champ Aubrey - the No. 1 Class 4A team in Texas - in the regional quarterfinals, a squad that had soundly beaten Melissa to end the regular season.

“It was a pretty amazing run,” fourth-year Lady Cards head coach Eric Rodgers said recently at Melissa High School. “We still mention the Aubrey series and how memorable that was. Even the North Lamar series [in the regional semis] was a pretty amazing ride.”

North Lamar squeaked by the Lady Cards, two games to one, in a thrilling series fans won’t soon forget. At one point, Melissa was three outs away from the regional finals.

“North Lamar had to give it everything they had to get rid of us,” Rodgers said. “I was very proud of how we handled ourselves, the way we played in the playoffs.”

Melissa bid farewell to five key seniors from last season: First-Team All-District catcher Kylee Brakebill; First-Team All-District centerfielder Anna Fortenberry; third baseman Audrey Solomon, a four-time All-District pick and a District Co-Offensive MVP; All-District pitcher Alexis Pevehouse, a district Offensive MVP and co-MVP; and district Honorable Mention catcher/rightfielder Macy Stewart.

This group had a hand in logging 82 wins, three bi-district championships, two area championships and that first-ever regional-quarterfinal title.

“You can’t say enough about what they did for us – all over the field,” Rodgers said. “They just seemed to come through for us time and time again. They’re going to be missed tremendously.”

But don’t feel too bad for Melissa. Rodgers welcomes back a slew of talent – and has more than a couple very promising freshmen joining the roster.

Key returning starters include: two-time All-District senior Savannah Rodriguez, the 2019 Utility Player of the Year, who moves from outfield to catcher; senior All-District shortstop Trinity Needham, who just signed with East Texas Baptist University; senior second baseman Maggie Rodgers, a three-time All-District pick; and All-District sophomore pitcher Bryton Wright.

Rodriguez mentioned moving to catcher last year and Rodgers was receptive.

“She’s got a strong arm,” he said, “and we’ve been working with her. We’re happy with what she’s going to do for us there. She’s raring to go. She’s been excited about this season probably since the last one ended.”

Wright gained valuable experience last year, including some post-season play, and will be the team’s No. 1 pitcher. “I’m excited about what she’s going to bring to the circle,” Rodgers said, “and, really, to the plate as well.”

Comparing Wright’s style to Pevehouse, Rodgers said, “We can’t discount anything Alexis did for us. She pitched great for us for three years. … Bryton’s presence in the circle, it’s kind of daunting. Then, I swear when we wear the all-black [uniforms] she looks even more intimidating. She has, really, all the same pitches Peve had. We’re going to figure out which ones we want to lean on with Bryton. With Peve, most of the time it was a rise ball or a screw ball. … Bryton’s strengths are in a couple of other pitches, but I’ll keep those to myself right now.”

Being strong up the middle - with solid defenders Maggie Rodgers and Needham back - is a bonus for any coach. “Not having to change a shortstop or a second baseman is going to be nice,” Rodgers said. “They’re really solid playing there together.”

Rodgers is starting her third year at second. Needham joined the team last year after two seasons at McKinney Boyd.

At first, Rodgers is looking at sisters Christie and Kayla Stevenson. Holding down third base will likely be freshman Kindred Johnson or sophomore Rachel Wells, up from JV.

“I really like what Kindred is doing for us,” Rodgers said. “She practices really hard, is here every day, plays a lot of softball and has a great attitude. I think she’s really going to help us at the plate as well. … Rachel has a strong arm and a great bat. That’s been a fun competition to watch over there. Whichever one doesn’t end up at third … may play some left field.”

Freshman Autumn Bell comes aboard in center field. “She’s getting the hang of it,” Rodgers said. “She reminds me a lot of Melissa Ellis [who played center before Fortenberry]. When she opens up that big glove, it reminds us of Melissa.”

In right field, seniors Brianna McGee and Peyton Free are battling for the starting spot.

Another newcomer, sophomore Miriah Davis, is getting a look in left field. “She’s come a long way,” Rodgers said. “We’re getting pretty comfortable with her there.”

Another possibility is junior Wendy Clemmons, who’s still playing basketball. “Or we’ll put here wherever she can help,” Rodgers said. “I’m excited to have her as a choice.”

Freshman Lilly Dye should start out as a courtesy runner, spelling Wright or Rodriguez on the bases. Rodgers added that she may eventually work in on defense as well.

“I think the defense in the infield is going to be a strength,” Rodgers said. “It’s going to allow us to continue to groom our outfield. I’m not saying we’re deficient in the outfield, I just think we need more time, more practice.”

As for hitting, Rodgers said, “I told the girls, ‘We may not be putting it over the fence 50 times.’ And they told me to speak for myself. … It’s going to be a different team. We’re going to have to figure things out as we go. But I don’t think it’s going to be a bad ‘different.’”

Asked about the non-district slate, Rodgers said, “I think we’ve got a good chance to do pretty well. Counting our tournaments, we’ve got a full spectrum of teams we’re going to play.”

Class 2A state-tournament team Honey Grove and perhaps No. 2-ranked 2A Bells are a couple of those. The Lady Cards may also meet talented 3A Whitewright twice in tourney play.

Of course, winning that elusive first district title is a top goal again of the Lady Cards.

Looking at this year’s race, Rodgers said of Anna, “You can’t discount a team that went to the state tournament. They lost one player. Hannah [Howell] was a special talent - just a great kid, too. … In the last few years, Anna always played us tough. I never overlook a team that’s basically our rival, because it’s going to be a battle.

“Aubrey lost one player too so they should be very good. They’re going to be hard to beat, just like last year. But we proved we could do it.”

For Celina, Rodgers pointed to returning Lady Cats pitcher Micayla Galloway. “She really got going last year at the end of the year. She doesn’t overpower people but she spins the ball really well. It’s so hard to hit.”

Regarding Sanger, Rodgers said, “Throughout the last 10 or 15 years, they’ve been really competitive - and they’ve been in the playoffs more than not. I’m not going to underestimate what they might have.

“Gainesville, they were a bunch of young, young girls [last year] and they played hard and tried hard. It’ll be interesting to see how they’ve improved as well.”

Melissa’s season-opener is Feb. 18 at home versus Pottsboro. District play begins March 17 at Gainesville.