By Rick Atkinson
For the Anna-Melissa Tribune
ANNA - Last year’s softball season was one that no Anna fan will ever forget. The memorable campaign included not only the program’s first-ever trip to the state tournament in Austin, but a berth in the Class 4A state championship game after they dispatched powerhouse Decatur in the semifinals. It was some craziness all right, especially since the Lady Coyotes had gone 2-18 in district play over the two previous seasons. And the excitement still lingers.
“It feels like it just happened yesterday,” new Anna head coach Jennifer Sluder said recently at AHS. “It didn’t really settle with them until after we got back and realized, ‘Oh, wow. What a cool experience. We got to be a part of that.’ … We’re trying to use that momentum from last year to push us through to where we need to be this year.”
Another highlight from last season was, of course, beating Melissa twice – something Anna hadn’t done in five years. The second win was especially memorable with Carly Fullenwider slapping a two-out, walk-off bunt to score Shelby Dombrowski from third as Lady Coyotes fans went wild. “I honestly believe that was the turning point,” Sluder said, “where they realized, ‘Hey, we’re good enough to do this.’”
Sluder takes the Anna helm after former head coach Lindsey Gage’s departure for Class 6A Ridge Point, near Houston. Sluder was Gage’s varsity assistant coach for the Lady Coyotes’ superb run, arriving last year after a successful turn as head coach at Pottsboro.
“I think she laid a very good foundation,” Sluder said of Gage’s four-year stint at Anna. “She knew what she wanted and she knew where they needed to be.” Sluder’s experience at Pottsboro had been similar, taking a team that won one district game before her arrival to the playoffs for four-straight years.
“I kind of knew what I was stepping into,” Sluder said. “Coach Gage and I have been friends for a while.” Sluder coached against Gage while at Pottsboro and, before that, when Sluder coached Howe and Gage led Whitesboro. “I was looking forward to it because I knew … she taught them not only the fundamentals of the game but actually them loving the game and playing like we’re a family.”
Sluder’s arrival last year, teamed with Anna JV assistant coach Jacqueline Rosson, gave the Lady Coyotes’ staff three coaches with college playing experience, something that likely boosted Anna’s fortunes in the long run.
Rosson moves up to varsity assistant this season and that continuity should lend itself to more success, Sluder said.
Anna went 25-9-1 last season, finishing 6-4 in district play - tied with Celina for second place - before storming to state with playoff wins over North Dallas, Ranchview, Celina, Farmersville and North Lamar.
The good news is this team returns every player but one. The not-as-good news: The player they lost to graduation is one Hannah Howell, perhaps the heart and soul of last year’s team – one who also swung a big bat and brought serious pitching skills. As the Lady Coyotes’ ace last season, Howell made District Co-MVP and was also Anna’s Defensive MVP, posting a 1.60 ERA, striking out 194 batters and allowing only 30 earned runs. She now plays for Northwestern Oklahoma State University.
“It’s going to be challenging,” Sluder said of losing Howell. “But I have confidence in our girls. We’re going to make those routine defensive plays like we did last year. And offensively, we’re going to hit the ball like we did.
“Not only was [Howell] a great pitcher … she was really smart about where she placed the ball - and she didn’t walk very many batters. When you have a pitcher who can control who she’s walking and where she’s placing the ball, your defense becomes more confident and routine plays can be made. And I feel like there was a level of respect the kids had for her.”
Stepping into Howell’s spot will be junior left-hander Amber Thille, who also pitched last year and played center field. “I think her being a lefty will be good for us,” Sluder said, “because it’s harder to hit a left-handed pitcher. She has movement and she’s just so long and tall that her wind up can be deceiving. … She doesn’t get rattled much. Depending on how mentally tough you can be, that can make or break a game. She has that.”
Returning outfielder Hannah Price, the district’s 2019 Freshman of the Year, will see plenty of time in the pitcher’s circle as well, Sluder said. Freshman Kaitlyn Gonzales may also get a look there.
Other returning Lady Coyotes include senior shortstop Dombrowski, the district’s Defensive MVP; junior third baseman Madison Gaston and junior catcher Kallie Harris, both First-Team All-District picks; senior leftfielder Hannah Morland and sophomore second baseman Madi McPherson, both Second-Team All-District picks; and junior first baseman Qua Fisher, who made district Honorable Mention.
Defensively, in the first week of February, several positions were in flux with Fisher still playing basketball and others out as well. “Once we get everybody out here, we’re going to be pretty solid defensively,” Sluder said. “It stayed the same - nothing’s really going to change. The only position in the infield that would be different would be our pitcher.”
In the outfield, with Thille pitching, Price moves to center from right and Morland likely stays in left, Sluder said. Jakquelyn Packard, Carly Fullenwider and Adrienne “Koolaid” Newman could see time in right field.
Lady Coyotes’ hitting improved last season and, though Sluder downplays her role in that, Gage had noted power-hitting as a team weakness and asked Sluder to take it on.
Top returning hitters include Gaston, Dombrowski, Morland, Harris and Price. Gaston was Anna’s Offensive MVP last year, posting a team-high 35 RBIs with a .424 batting average. Then there’s Fisher, who smashed a crucial two-out, three-run homer versus North Lamar in last year’s regional final. “She’s hit or miss,” Sluder smiled. “You never know what you’re going to get.”
For “small ball,” Sluder noted the speedy talents of Newman and Fullenwider, adding that Packard could also surprise as a hitter. Newman and Fullenwider may also make it into defensive lineup at some point. “I think we’re going to have to outscore our opponents more than what we did last year,” Sluder said. “And we’ve got to focus on aggressive baserunning. We did that a little bit last year but I want to focus on it more.”
Besides the “No. 1 goal” of getting back to the state tournament, Sluder said, “I want them to be able to persevere through challenges. I’ve been coaching for a while and it’s very difficult for teams to get to the state tournament. It can be frustrating. That says a lot about the character of the people we have returning.”
Sluder adds two new teams to this year’s non-district slate: 4A Whitesboro, in the Feb. 18 season-opener, and 3A Prairiland on March 12. “I think Whitesboro is a good game to challenge us, to see how good a hitters we actually are. I know they have a solid pitcher.” Anna hosts Sanger in the district-opener on March 17.
As for the district race, Sluder said, “We should be able to compete just as much as we did last year. … I think us playing in a tough district [last year] prepared us to play those tougher teams once we got further into the playoffs.”
2020 PREDICTED FINISH DISTRICT 11-4A (not guaranteed)