Talent levels ebb and flow over the course of years in a high school softball program.
Blake Lyons says the wave is rising at Jones County this season, and he hopes his Lady Hounds can ride it to a region title and deep run in the state playoffs.
“That’s the goal, to win region and make a run at state,” he said. “We were knocking on the door last year but fell a little short.”
The 2017 Lady Hounds finished second in Region 4-5A, falling by a run in extra innings of the championship game to Locust Grove. They swept McIntosh and South Effingham in the first two rounds of the state playoffs to advance to the Elite Eight, but they lost their first two games there after starting catcher Kayla Curry had to have an appendectomy the morning the tournament started, putting the team in an emotional hole they couldn’t escape.
“The way last year ended was a disappointment, but hopefully that planted the seed and we can make it back and do better this year,” Lyons said. “I know the girls have worked really hard this summer, so we’re ready to get started.”
Jones County opens the season next week with a region game at Woodland-Stockbridge on Tuesday and home games against Houston County and Dutchtown on Wednesday and Thursday.
Lyons said he is excited about his program’s talent level entering the season.
“I really like this group of softball players. One through 30, I think it is the best I’ve ever had as a coach,” he said, as he begins his 29th season. “There is not a kid who is not fighting for a spot in the lineup, either on varsity or junior varsity. We even had to cut a couple who would have made it any other year, just because we didn’t have room.
“We graduated several good seniors last year, but we have good experience all around the field, including our top two pitchers, our whole starting infield and one outfielder.
“If we have one question, it is a lack of experience behind the plate,” Lyons said. “We have some talented girls back there, but they haven’t had varsity experience catching, mainly because we had Kayla back there the last three years.”
Junior Makinsey Long, who played mostly outfield last year, sophomore Molly Keenum and freshman Kaitlyn Quillen have been getting most of the work behind the plate in the preseason.
“They’re all good. It is just a matter of who does the best job on defense – blocks pitches, makes good throws, runs the field and gets people in position – that will decide who plays the most,” Lyons said.
The new catchers will have experienced pitchers throwing to them.
Junior Savannah Williams moved up from the junior varsity about a third of the way through last season and established herself as the team’s top starter. Senior Mayson Watford also returns to give the Lady Hounds a potent combination in the circle, and freshman Destin Howard is up from middle school to add a power arm to the mix.
“It’s like we have two number one pitchers in Savannah and Mayson, and Destin can really throw hard. She just needs experience and learn to pitch more ahead in the count.”
Senior Brenay Howard returns to start at first base, and she could also see time in the outfield.
Jones County’s doubleplay combo of shortstop Madison Bennett and second baseman Kloey Goins, both juniors, also returns, and junior Mackenzie Kilpatrick is back at third base.
“Madison and Kloey are really strong defenders up the middle and work well together. I think we turned more double plays last year than ever before,” Lyons said.
“Kilpatrick plays mostly outfield on her travel team, so we need to get her back in tune in the infield, but she’ll do fine.”
Junior Emily Carter and freshman Megan Hamilton will back up Kilpatrick at third, and sophomore Maggie Glover is available to fill in at either shortstop or second, and she could play some in the outfield.
Senior Lauren Grace Carr and junior Kaitlyn Brower return in the outfield, and Watford will be out there when she is not pitching. Carr and Brower could also see time at first backing up Howard.
Juniors Macy Norman, who will also be used as a pinch runner often, and Brooklyn Etheridge will also likely see playing time in the outfield, along with freshman Stephanie Youngblood.
Junior Maddie Beck adds more depth in the outfield and at second base, and junior Emily Carter plays first and third.
Lyons hasn’t settled on a batting order, but expect Watford and Bennett to again fill the top two spots.
“They’ve both got a lot of speed and do a good job getting on base. And Goins will likely be in the third spot because she’s also fast and hits well,” he said.
Lyons said the Lady Hounds have more power potential this season, with all who will bat from fourth to ninth in the lineup able to hit home runs.
“We’ll still run and try to put pressure on other teams, but maybe not as much as in some years past,” he said.
That’s because Kilpatrick, both of the Howard sisters, Williams, Youngblood, Carr, Long and Hamilton are all capable of providing good power with their bats.
Lyons said the junior varsity will also be strong this season due to an influx of talented freshmen. Half of the 30 girls in the program this year are ninthgraders.
“We were blessed by a strong class up from the middle schools (Gray Station and Clifton Ridge) this year,” he said. “I think our JV team could finish fourth or fifth in the region against the other varsity teams this year.”
He is especially pleased with the group of young pitchers, led by Destin Howard. Other freshmen hurlers include Brianna Edmonson, Rylie Gibson, Sierra Hursey and Lexi Kiser.
“We’ve got seven girls between the varsity and junior varsity who can throw strikes with consistency this year, which is great. There have been years when we’ve struggled to find more than one or two. We just need the younger girls to keep working and gaining experience.”
Lyons’ coaching staff returns intact from last year – Tripp Burt, Makayla Greene and Taylor Campbell. Burt will concentrate on the catchers, Greene the infielders, and Campbell the outfielders. Greene will also again be the head JV coach, assisted by Campbell.