Hope springs eternal in the Cleveland State Lady Cougar softball camp as third-year head coach, Katie Willingham and her staff have been hard at work in the offseason preparing for what they hope will be a successful campaign in 2013.
“We had a very successful fall practice season,” explained the coach. “We played more games against stiffer competition and more than held our own. We didn’t win all of them, but we were in the games and really made a lot of progress. The girls left it all out there on the field and it seemed that the better the competition, the better we played, so I was happy with that.”
A pair of Kelseys will handle the pitching duties in the early going as Kelsey Haley and Kelsey Capella will take their turn in the circle. Ida Watson will also be in the mix hopefully sometime in March as she recovers from a wrist injury suffered back in December.
“Kelsey Capella is our workhorse and we will need her to be one. She is a great young lady off the field, but when she steps between the lines she puts on her game face and she has the mental makeup to handle any situation,” stated Willingham. “Kelsey Haley is a left-handed freshman who is still making the transition, but when she gains the confidence that she needs at this level, watch out, because her upside is very bright. We hope to get Ida back from the injury sometime around the first of March, but we’re not going to rush her, so it’s day by day with her.”
Meghan Allen will handle most of the catching duties after missing last year with a knee injury. Freshman Ashley Swaney will also see some time behind the dish as well as third base and designated hitter.
“Meghan gained a lot of experience last year even though she didn’t get to play,” the coach continued. “She has learned a lot and I feel confident that she can do the job. Ashley is busy making the transition from high school to college, but she has the skill to be a very good catcher and will get better as we go along. Both catchers are starting fresh and lack experience at the college level, but we like the upside on both of them.”
Maura Ditto will return to anchor the infield at first base and also the middle of the lineup and will try to improve on her impressive .377 batting average from a year ago. Paige Mayer will see time at second base after missing last year with an injury while freshman Amber Swaney will also spend time at the second sack. All-around athlete Emily Huston will take over the shortstop duties while Shelby Hanson returns for her sophomore campaign at third base.
“Maura had an outstanding year last year and she will lead us in the infield and in the middle of our lineup,” said Willingham. “Paige and Amber are both hard workers and will both play at second base depending on the situation and who has the hotter bat. Emily is just a great athlete; she can play anywhere we need her. She has played third and outfield in the fall, but we need her at shortstop so that is where she will end up. Shelby is coming back from a shoulder injury at third base, but we think she is back and ready to play.”
Sydney Howell and Amber Covington are returning sophomores and will patrol left and right field, respectively, while former Walker Valley Lady Mustang Leslie Still will play center field. A pair of freshmen from Chattanooga Central, Ciera Belcher and Jasmine Cobb will also see time in the outfield, as will former Ooltewah Lady Owl Sara O’Rear.
“We have a lot of flexibility in the outfield,” said Willingham. “We will mix and match as we go along depending on the opponent and who is hitting at the time. Several of these girls will see time at designated hitter when they are not in the outfield. It’s a pleasant problem to have. They all can play defense, so we will just have to let it play out. I’m sure we will change things around often as we go along. We may not need a DH as much, because Kelsey Haley and Ida can both hit for themselves when they are pitching.”
As the conference did in baseball, there have been several changes to the year-end tournament format in softball. Only the top four teams will make the tournament to be held at Volunteer State May 3-5. Also the ladies have gone to a 36-game conference schedule instead of the 18-game schedule of past years, which will mean that the softball teams will play four conference games each weekend with doubleheaders on Friday and Saturday.
“I like some of the changes and some of them I’ll have to wait and see,” Willingham explained. “It puts more pressure on the teams just to get into the top four and make the tournament, but I think the 36-game conference schedule will give us a better picture of who will get in. It’ll be very interesting to watch how things shape up as we go along this year. You always want to be the top seed, but really you just want to make it into the top four and take your chances after that.”
The Lady Cougars will open their season at home this afternoon, weather permitting, with a 2 p.m. doubleheader with Snead State and will open their conference schedule as they host the defending National Champion, Chattanooga State Lady Tigers on Tuesday and Wednesday, Feb. 26 and 27, for a four-game series.