Lady Longhorns hope to emerge as top contender

By Matt Hill
STAR STAFF
mhill@starhq.com

   MOUNTAIN CITY--Last year was a "what might have been" type of season for the Johnson County softball team.
   This year, head coach Dana Smith hopes the squad will reach its full potential.
   The Lady Longhorns nearly pulled off a first round district tournament upset of Happy Valley last season, and who knows what might have happened if they had pulled through.
   Happy Valley went on to advance to the substate, while the Longhorns got ready for next season.
   "I think there were situations that we were thinking what could have been," Smith said. "We played well in a game that was hard to lose. We have put that behind us. We want to go farther this year."
   The main problem for Johnson County this year might be lack of practice time. As of the first weekend in March, Johnson County had yet to practice one time on its field.
   "I just hope we can get some time on the field, which is a problem for everybody," Smith said.
   Youth will be served, as many of the starters will be underclassmen, including sophomore pitcher Laura Peters.
   Don't let Peters' youth fool you. She will be tough to beat.
   Peters performed admirably last year, and even pitched a one-hitter in that district tournament loss to Happy Valley. Now that she's a year older, Smith thinks the sky is the limit.
   "She's stronger physically and is a good strong leader," Smith said. "They believe in her. That means a lot for the unity of a team. They know she'll have some rough times, but the majority of the time she's going to give 110 percent, and she's going to be OK."
   Senior leadership will be provided by second baseman Rebecca Boney and shortstop Andrea McQueen. McQueen is currently out with an ACL injury she suffered during basketball season, but could be back at the end of March.
   Smith said McQueen will be missed.
   "We're hoping we can have a good start even without Andrea," Smith said. "Hopefully, she'll just add to what we are doing."
   Due to the bad weather, Smith's lineup is tentative.
   If the season started today, Charlie Hodge would be the first baseman, with Boney at second.
   Freshman Katie Nelson will man short until McQueen returns. Another freshman, Sara Wright, will take care of third.
   Freshman Cayla Lewis will be the catcher.
   Yet another freshman, Amanda Dowell, will join returning senior starters Avery Long and Deena Hensley in the outfield.
   "I'll probably stick with that lineup," Smith said. "I'm pretty comfortable with it. I think this group is talented, and they work hard. I've never doubted their commitment."
   Smith believes senior leadership and defense will be major strengths of this squad.
   "Our defense is usually strong," Smith said. "We don't give up a lot of errors. Andrea and Rebecca push the other girls. They take care of them. They support them."
   Smith sees Happy Valley and Unicoi County as the teams to beat, but she hopes her squad is right up there with them.
   "Happy Valley is strong, and they didn't lose anybody," Smith said. "Unicoi lost a lot of players, but they're a good program and always have good players coming in from the middle school. We're hoping to be right there with them."