Lady'Landers expect to see improvement

By Jeff Birchfield

   Tuesday afternoon, the Cloudland Lady Highlanders softball team gave such a hard-fought effort in their season-opener that it almost brought one of their coaches to tears.
   "They played with so much heart that I almost cried," admitted interim head coach Mary Johnson after the Lady 'Landers rallied from a 21-2 deficit to only lose by four runs. "I couldn't believe we would come back from 19 runs down like that. That shows what we are capable of."
   The 2002 version of Cloudland girls' softball looks to improve on last season with some familiar faces and some who are playing the game for the first time. In all, 17 girls make up this year's squad.
   Taukia Hughes, star guard on the Lady 'Landers basketball team, is the team's first baseman.
   "Taukia is a senior and her enthusiasm is her biggest strength," said Johnson. "She's our biggest cheerleader, always talking up the other players."
   Over at second is junior Ashley Timbs, who has changed positions from her freshman year.
   "Ashley originally was an outfielder as a freshman," said Johnson. "But, she has become a good defensive stopper and we needed her in the infield."
   The third-base position is occupied by senior Tonya Simerly, who was injured in the first game, but expected to be back in uniform soon.
   "She's a good hitter, an all-around offensive player who's good at stealing bases," said Johnson about Simerly.
   Filling the gap at shortstop is Natasha Benfield, a player that suits this role to a tee.
   "She's a pretty well-rounded athlete," said Johnson. "She's always providing good backup when the girls need her help."
   Surprising may be that the starting catcher and pitchers positions have all went to first-year players, but in each case these are girls who have shown a desire to perform above expectations.
   "Tara Melton, a senior, is our catcher," said Johnson. "She's aggressively smart. She keeps her head in there and being a senior, she knows what's required of her.
   "Rebecca Clawson and Tiffany Watts are our pitchers and they are both sophomores. They are two girls who stepped up for the team. They're dedicated to learning the game. Both girls wanted to come up and play and they are learning a lot at one time. Rebecca has more speed and she's an awesome hitter, but Tiffany is more accurate."
   The outfield consists of players from all four classes at Cloudland. Sophomore Star Baker and senior Amanda McKinney are sharing time in left field.
   "Star is a very diligent player," said Johnson. "She always tries her best. Amanda is a first-year player, but she's a great hitter. She seems like she will be a good all-around player."
   Centerfielders listed are Deidre Stevens and Leetah Hicks.
   "Deidre does pretty well fielding," remarked Johnson. "Leetah has a good arm. She also plays as back-up catcher. She's speedy and likes to steal the bases."
   Junior Misty Baker and freshman Beth Gardner are taking turns in right field.
   "Misty knows where the plays are," said Johnson. "She's kind of a seasoned veteran and she's a good worker. Beth does pretty well. She is a great fielder and defensive player. Her best strength is her aggressiveness."
   These players are complemented by four more Lady 'Landers whose interest in diamonds aren't limited to jewelry.
   "Ashley Norman, a sophomore, has played both shortstop and outfield," said Johnson. "She's a good player that has a lot of spirit. Amanda Dugger plays some at left field and she has done well as a fielder.
   "Katlin Baker is a sophomore, who likes to get in there and mix it up and help us out. Renee Buckley is a sophomore playing her first year. She's still learning centerfield, but she's got a really good arm."
   The new players aren't the only ones learning. Due to regular head coach Evangeline Hurter taking time off before the season to have her second child, coaching responsibilities are now being shared by Johnson, Hurter and Evangeline's husband, Cliff.
   Johnson says the Hurters and she have all played a key role in getting the team prepared to play.
   "It's helped out that all three of us are working together," said Johnson, a 1993 graduate of Hampton. "Mrs. Hurter had the schedule already made out and I didn't have to worry about that. Cliff and I have been serving as a co-head coaches."
   Johnson teaches a variety of social studies classes at Cloudland ranging from geography to economics to psychology, as well as teaching martial arts in her spare time. In all her endeavors, she sets high standards and teaching this team is no exception.
   "I expect good things from them," said the Appalachian State alumnus. "I know they can do what they are supposed to do. I'm excited because these are girls that want to play and I think we can have a good year."