Lady Rangers face rebuilding season

By Ivan Sanders

STAR CORRESPONDENT
isanders@starhq.com

   The Lady Ranger softball program this season might resemble a mother teaching her small child how to take it's first steps. There will be some bumps and bruises, but if they can just hold on they might take a big step before season's end.
   For a program that has been used to winning district and regional titles then going on to state, the upcoming season may be hard to swallow. What everyone needs to be made aware of is that the Lady Rangers may stumble a little this year, but they have a large nucleus of young talent that will no doubt continue the tradition of winning that Unaka softball has been known for.
   "We are a very young team this year," stated Unaka mentor Ronnie Hicks. "I am expecting us to make a lot of mistakes early, especially since we haven't been able to practice much with the snow days and the success of our basketball program."
   Yet, as everyone knows, Hicks is the type of coach that can bring out the best in a softball program. He has 24 years of experience where he has not only taught the ladies at Unaka about softball, but he has learned an awful lot from them as well.
   "You know last year we struggled to stay on the field early," said Hicks. "The girls really pulled it together and we won another district title, a regional title, and was one win away from another state berth."
   Hicks knows that for the 2002 edition of the Lady Rangers to be successful, their pitching will have to carry them early. The pitching still is needing some fine tuning, but Hicks realizes his hurlers are up to the task.
   "Not having enough practices is what is killing us," commented Hicks. "Danielle Williams and Danielle Carr are both capable pitchers, but we just need to get some work in."
   Just like the basketball team, the Lady Rangers will have to depend upon the quick progression of a good class of freshmen players. Julie Roberson will be handling the first base duties, while Emily Elliott and Kelly Allen will fill the catcher slot and one of the outfield openings.
   Senior Kristen Morley will be taking care of chores at second with Alesha Buckles, also a senior, moving from catcher to shortstop. Hicks will be rotating Carr and Williams between pitching and playing third base.
   Returning outfielder Jessica Moffitt will patrol center field while there is still one slot left to be filled opposite Allen. There are several freshmen that could step into the position, so Hicks will have to be able to see which player really wants the slot bad enough.
   The Lady Rangers will be participating in two tournaments that Coach Hicks feels will help go a long way in improving the team. They will participate in the Tiny Day Tournament in Greeneville and the Azalea Invitational in Summerville, SC.
   One of the largest fast pitch tournaments in the United States, the Azalea Classic features 41 softball teams from single A all the way up to AAAAA.
   The Lady Rangers open with a AAAAA team from Ohio, and then will square off against three teams from South Carolina.
   Said Hicks: "It will be tough competing against these teams. What I am hoping is that when we get back from this tournament, we will be looking more like a team. I feel like it will go a long way in preparing us for the run toward the district tournament."
   As for as the conference goes, University High should be the team to beat this year. They are a well-coached, seasoned team that bolsters a strong pitching staff. Defensively, they will feature one of the toughest units in District 1.
   Everyone else will filter out under the Lady Bucs depending on who shows up with a desire to win.
   One thing going for the Lady Rangers is the fact that everyday the girls walk onto the field and see all the district and regional signs being displayed, they are reminded of the pride and resilience with which other Lady Ranger teams have played.
   This could be an unusual year on Stoney Creek. The program is young and untested, but winning is a habit for the Lady Ranger softball team.