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Jackets ready to get back on top

    BROOKLET — In 2008, the Southeast Bulloch softball team came within two wins of a state title. The last two years saw a shift in the balance of power as SEB’s rivals claimed region titles, but with a reloaded team, the Lady Yellow Jackets are ready to make their move back to the top.
    The anticipation for the 2011 season has been a long time coming for SEB.
    Last season, the Jackets were loaded with freshmen and sophomores during a big youth movement. As expected, inexperience took an early toll, but SEB became a threat by the time the postseason rolled around and a summer full of constant practice and improvement brings the Jackets into this season a talented and confident squad.
    “I don’t think there’s any questioning that we have high expectations for ourselves,” said SEB coach Aimee Civalier. “We may have had some jitters last year, but that’s gone now. It’s time to step things up another level.”
    For all the talent that returns for SEB, just two starters are gone.
    Ansley Rushing and Hannah Denmark — both All-Region 3-AA selections last season — will be missed, but Civalier is confident in her team’s ability to reload instead of rebuild.
    “You can’t just replace a great leadoff hitter like Ansley or a girl that had a 22-game hitting streak like Hannah,” said Civalier. “But we still have the talent to succeed.”
    Stepping up into those vacated leadership roles will be this year’s senior class of outfielders Nira Byrd and Megan Cook.
    Lindsey Crosby, Ciera Clark and Effie Manahan will also fill out the Jackets’ batting order, which will be able to sting opponents in a number of ways.
    “A lot of girls really progressed hitting the ball last season,” said Civalier. “We also have a bunch of speed. Offensively, we just need to get runners on and put pressure on the defense.”
    Looking at the arms that SEB will trot to the mound this season, just a few runs should be plenty.
    Last season, Taylor Wilkes burst onto the scene. As a freshman, Wilkes earned the win in the 2010 season opener and never looked back, leading the Jackets in wins and establishing herself as the go-to pitcher in the postseason.
    This year, more help arrives as Sierra Peebles joins the team.
    Peebles is a freshman this season, but her accolades far outweigh any inexperience at the high school level as she has competed — and starred — on traveling teams that have succeeded at the national level.
    And so, while their top two pitchers may be young, there is plenty of reason for the Jackets to believe that they can contend for another region title this season.
    “We have a chance to be a very good team,” said Civalier. “We have depth and balance both offensively and defensively. Pitching is always crucial and it’s been awhile since we’ve had two options at pitcher that will be this strong.
    “Last year, I think we proved that we could play with a lot of good teams. This year, we think that we’re the team to beat.”
    The Jackets get their chance to start on the right foot this afternoon as they travel to Portal. First pitch is scheduled for 5 p.m.

    Mike Anthony can be reached at (912) 489-9404.