It might seem like second-year head coach Katie Willingham and new assistant coach Megan Foley are fighting an uphill battle as they have to deal with injuries and several lost players due to grade issues, but the always-upbeat coaches choose to look forward and not back as they play the hand they have been dealt.
“We have several obstacles to overcome already and we haven’t played our first game yet,” explained Willingham. “We started out with 20 girls in the fall and are now down to 14 because of ineligibility and injury. I told the girls that no matter what has happened up till now, we can’t change that; we have to go out and play as hard as we can to the best of our ability and give 100 percent every time out. It’s gonna be a little bumpy at times and tough at times, but how we handle adversity from here will determine our season.”
The Lady Cougars will go with several different combinations at first and third base throughout the season depending on the situation and who is hot at the time. Freshmen Maura Ditto (Johnson City) and Shelby Hanson (Fort Oglethorpe, Ga.) along with sophomores Sarah Goza (Walker Valley High School) and Halen Weeks (Dalton, Ga.) will all see time at the corner positions.
“We are looking for a lot of offensive production from these four girls as well as defense at the corners,” said Willingham. “We haven’t settled on who will be where, but they will all see playing time.”
Sophomore Ashlen Mitchell will return behind the plate and will also be counted on in a leadership role and to anchor the middle of the lineup. Goza and Weeks will serve as backup catchers. Meghan Allen hurt her knee and will be lost for the season.
“Ashlen had a good year last year and is taking up right where she left off,” Willingham said. “She hit the ball extremely well in the fall and we expect her to have a big year. She and Sara Goza had a lot of clutch hits for us last year and I expect them to continue this year.”
Casey Griffin will return to hold down the shortstop position and will also supply much-needed speed to the top of the lineup. A right-handed hitter last year, Griffin has worked hard in the offseason to become a left-handed slap hitter to better take advantage of her speed. Kelly Sullins and Paige Mayer will split time at second base.
Sophomore Kenzie Fish will patrol the outfield again this year, and along with freshman Sydney Howell will take care of left field and center field.
“Kenzie and Sydney will probably switch from left to center depending on the situation,” the coach continued. “Kenzie is not quite 100 percent with a hamstring problem, so we’ll watch her and Sydney is an outstanding defensive outfielder so I can put her anywhere.”
Right field is still up for grabs as former Bradley Bearette, Heather Lynn, Kerstyn Stansberry (Lebanon) and Kenly Lambert will all see time. Amber Covington could also see some playing time after she recovers from shoulder surgery.
The Lady Cougars will enter the season with only two pitchers after starting fall practice with five. Sophomore Meghan Smith will return and will try to improve on her impressive numbers from last year. Meghan struck out 107 batters in 147 innings and posted a 2.68 ERA. Sophomore transfer Kenly Lambert will also toe the mound after taking a year off. Casey Griffin will be the emergency pitcher if the need arises.
“We haven’t really set a lot of goals,” Willingham concluded. “We would like to be in the middle of the pack or better by tournament time and then make some noise, but really our goal is to stay healthy and play as hard as we can every inning of every game. The sophomores believe in what we are doing and hopefully the freshman will follow. The conference race will be tough as usual, Chattanooga (State) has the bullseye on their back, but we are excited about the season and ready to go.”