Lady Rangers pin hopes on young talent

By Marvin Birchfield
STAR CORRESPONDENT
mbirchfield@starhq.com

   With spring time making its presence, the 2003 softball season gets into the swing of action and the Unaka Lady Rangers set their sights on another 1-A conference title.
   For more than the last 20 years Unaka has been the team to beat in its division by accumulating 18 District 1-A titles, 13 regional championships, 15 trips to sub-state, and four appearances in the state tournament.
   This season's chances for a ninth consecutive repeat in the conference will not be easy for them, because they'll be faced with overthrowing rival University High, which finished runner-up last year and is more experienced.
   "I think it's going be pretty hard for us to win the conference -- University High has a seasoned team with everybody coming back, and I'd have to say they are the favorite right now," said Unaka head coach Ronnie Hicks.
   Although the Lady Rangers roster is filled with a lot of young players, the talent level and capabilities is still at the point where they can compete with the best in the area.
   "We've got one senior, two juniors, and the rest are freshman and sophomores, so we're real young but do have a lot of talent," said Hicks.
   Year end and year out, Hicks has managed to find a way on how to get the most from his ballclub, but with the lack of practice so far and a very tough schedule, he'll have his work cut out in the upcoming months.
   "We've only practiced four days in three weeks, so we'll have to play our way into shape, and there's so much teaching that we need to do right now," said Hicks.
   Even though Hicks faces the challenge of trying to teach the youngsters about the basics, Unaka's first performance in the Lady Ranger jamboree was to Hick's liking.
   "In our scrimmage today, I thought we would look funny, but we play well and beat Johnson County 4-0," said Hicks on Friday.
   Hicks said the team hit the ball and ran the bases well, and the things they had practiced so far might have already impacted the way they played.
   The only senior the Rangers possess is Amanda Wilson, who will be called on as a role player and designated hitter.
   "She'll pinch-hit and be a designated runner and things like that, but since my team is so young, I'll have to get them ready in the outfield for next season," said Hicks.
   The players returning from last year's team is a solid and talented group, but there's also a couple of new faces, which are expected to make a difference early.
   "Ryann Musick pitched one inning for us today and threw 10 pitches, striking out three batters, so I say she's going to do well," said Hicks. "Yeah, she's going to be a good one."
   Another young talent Hicks picked up this season is catcher Megan Heaton, which Hicks thinks will help add a spark along with the other new comers.
   "We got two really good caliber freshman, along with three others who are very talented also," said Hicks.
   Musick and Heaton both decided to transfer from Elizabethton so they would get the opportunity to play for Hicks, which speaks for itself on how much respect he's gained in producing a winning program.
   "I've picked up several girls from different places and didn't know they were even coming here, but we don't recruit them, and I always tell them to make sure they like Unaka first because they'll have to sit out a year if they decide to transfer out," said Hicks.
   The Rangers will be presented with a schedule this season in which they'll have to learn the game quickly to be able to come away with a nice record.
   "I've got the toughest schedule I have ever put on a young bunch like this, so I really don't know what to expect, but I think it will help up when it comes playoff time," said Hicks.
   The one strength Unaka has is with its pitching game, as junior player Danielle Williams will lead them at the mound.
   "Pitching and catching are our strongest positions, and we'll have Williams back along with Musick and Jessica Moffitt, who is also a really good pitcher," said Hicks.
   There is still a ways to go for Unaka to sharpen its skills, but with the enthusiasm of the players, Hicks says his bunch is really focused on learning the game.
   "This is one of the most eager group to learn the game that I've ever coached, and they're just foaming at the mouth on learning how to play," said Hicks.
   There has been several seasons where Hicks has had a highly talented and veteran teams in which he didn't have to instruct his players on what they needed to do, but it's going to be interesting to see how much his club will progress throughout the year.
   "This year and last year has been the first time in a long time that I've had to teach, but it's been exciting because they have been so excited, and I really look forward to getting it started to see what we've got," said Hicks.
   With the lack of practice in the early going, Hicks still thinks they'll be just find even though they need a quite bit more work on the basics.
   "They just need to be brought along on like backing up, where to throw the ball, when not to throw it, and just make the basic plays, so hopefully we can learn more advanced stuff," said Hicks.
   The future looks bright for this team in the years to come, as the young talent attempts to continue on improving the skills it takes to becoming a winning program.
   "If this team lives up to it's potential, then they might be better than last year's team, which made it to sub-state, and I can't wait until they move the private schools in their own league and have this bunch ready to play," said Hicks.