By CHRIS STANLEY
Football remains king of South Georgia high school sports, but there is just as much action coming to softball diamonds around the area.
Softball starts its season first, and — in Bulloch County — has already had a showcase event at the Miriam Burnette Alzheimer’s Tournament. Three of the four Bulloch County teams will throw their first pitch on Monday, looking to capitalize on a new season.
Statesboro, Bulloch Academy and Portal all will be on the diamond to begin the week — each one with new challenges in front of them in 2016. Here’s a more in depth look at each of these squads:
There’s no doubt since Jim Simmons took over duties as head softball coach at Statesboro, the team has shown improvement each season. The problem is, the wins haven’t been substantial enough to constitute a single season as a true success.
“This season is different,” Simmons said. “The community has been pushing softball on the girls in this area. It’s allowed more girls to get serious about softball and join travel teams. That level of dedication is what makes this group of girls great.”
His players echoed his sentiments about the dedication. Sophomore catcher McKenzie Wilkerson said she’s never been a part of a team in her life this cohesive.
“Last year we were all over the place,” Wilkerson said. “Over the summer we really came together and played some real team ball. We’re more of a family now.”
It was never more apparent than at the Alzheimer’s tournament back in late July. Last year, the Blue Devil’s were “pushovers” — a word used by Wilkerson herself. This year saw dramatic improvement, with the Blue Devil’s hanging tough with a number of teams and even beating Bulloch Academy on a walk -off in their final game.
“I really liked the way we hit the ball in that tournament,” Simmons said. “We just need to tighten up our defense and the way our team reacts when the ball is hit. Once we tighten that up, we’ll be pretty good.”
Simmons was clear this season he wants his pitchers to attack the zone. Statesboro will look to avoid high pitch counts and look to either get outs or have a runner on in three pitches — and let the defense do the rest of the work.
For the first time in a long time, the Blue Devils will have some pop in their lineup. Along with Wilkerson, look for senior infielder Kalli Harshall and sophomore infielder Morgan Thompson to rack up some extra base hits. As for the rest of the team, the Blue Devils will have to depend on a collection of speedy juniors and sophomores to get on base and steal some bags.
As for the region, Simmons said no particular team has separated themselves as the favorite. But the top four teams will make it to state — which Simmons and his team say they’re more than capable of doing.
“The talent on this team is the best it’s ever been,” Harsha said. “I think this teams knows we can actually win this year.”
The Gators are making a big change this year in the coaching ranks, as longtime coach Chandler Dennard has taken a step back while retaining his role as the school's athletic director. In steps Kyle Chambers, who moves up from the middle school to take over a program that has built a good reputation under its former coach.
Chambers has focused his first summer on the weight room. His goal is to get his young team bigger and stronger so they don’t have to focus as much on small ball this season.
“We’re definitely not the biggest team in the region,” Chambers said. “So I made sure to address that this summer.”
His players were quick to agree with him, as they seemed to enjoy the change of pace this summer. There seemed to be a strong feeling of unison between the players on Bulloch Academy’s young team.
“The summer made us a lot stronger physically and as a team,” said junior third baseman Mattie Lynn Hendrix. “I don’t think we’ve ever spent this much time together as a group.”
During the Alzheimer’s tournament, one could make the argument BA was the most competitive team of any of the four in the county. The Gators went on to beat Southeast Bulloch and lost to Statesboro on a walk-off hit. Despite the loss, senior MiKay Sands said she liked what she saw back in late July.
“Even though we lost, I liked how competitive we were,” Sands said. “I think we figured out how young we were and it’s something we can actually work on.”
Bulloch will lean heavily on its large freshman class. They’ll have five freshman playing regularly throughout the season at key positions, such as Abby Newton at shortstop and Regan Ellis at catcher. Despite such a young core at key defensive positions, Chambers believes defense and pitching are the strength of his team.
“Our athleticism and speed really give us an edge on defense,” Chambers said. “But we still have work to do on our team defense. Just knowing where to go with the ball in certain situations.”
As for pitching, the Gators will go as far as Sands does. She’ll pitch in all of BA’s big games, and when she’s not pitching, Sands will play centerfield. As the only senior on the team, Sands knows what role she’ll have to play as a leader.
“I have high expectations for us in my last year,” Sands said. “I know I can help lead this team because they’ll be behind me every step of the way.”
Bulloch Academy will have to go through Pinewood Academy to win the region crown, but Chambers and his girls expect to finish at least in the top two of their region.
There may not a more experienced team in the county than Portal High School, or confident for that matter.
“I’m going to throw out every baserunner that goes on me,” said senior catcher Faith Reddick.
“No one can throw me out with my speed,” said senior second baseman DaShonda Morgan.
“I can make all the tough plays at shortstop,” said senior shortstop Faith Oglesby.
That high level of confidence comes from playing with each other for seven years now, going all the way back to sixth grade. Portal has seven seniors who will contribute and a handful juniors to fill in behind. With 75 percent of his roster upperclassman, head coach Travis Moats feels great in his third season.
“This upper class knows how to communicate on the field without pointing fingers on mistakes,” Moats said. “They lead by example and will set the table for our younger girls.”
Over the summer Moats put the girls through a series of scrimmages to simulate real games. Through this, the team was able to tighten up their defense and get the lower classmen some playing time.
“Those workouts went well,” Moats said. “We use these games as learning tools and as coaches we really learn a lot.”
Perhaps Moats learned more at the Alzheimer’s tournament in late July. He noted the Panthers were running out of steam late in games, especially on the second day of the tournament. Conditioning throughout the season will help with that problem, but Moats said there’s plenty of other areas the team can work on.
“We didn’t swing the bat like I would have liked,” Moats said. “We need to be more aggressive on the bases too, but of course as a coach I want to see everything improve.”
Moats did mention the Panthers biggest strength was their defense. The chemistry will be evident on the field for the Panthers this year with all of the seniors playing key positions. Specifically, Reddick is the anchor of the defense who will be in charge of all the calls on the field. Morgan and Ogelsby make a strong one-two punch in the middle infield.
In the middle of the defense will be senior pitcher Kari Carter, who will handle all of the big games for the Panthers on the mound. Carter said with an experienced defensive infield, she’ll never be rattled in any situation.
“I know if I walk someone, Faith can throw them out,” Carter said. “We’re always confident in stuff like that. We’ll keep it fun this year for sure.”
As for the Panthers' region, they know everything runs through Emanuel County Institute and Calvary Day. Moats said he believes he has a top four team, and anything less would be a disappointment.