Lady Rangers recharged, ready to roll

By Michelle Pope
STAR STAFF
mpope@starhq.com

   The Unaka softball team, perhaps driven by pure determination to reclaim last year's regional title back from University High after standing as champions for eight consecutive years, will again be the team to defeat in the Watauga Valley Conference.
   Head Unaka coach Ronnie Hicks is returning his substate-competing team from last year to give the Lady Rangers an experienced edge against their longtime rivals, the Jr. Lady Bucs.
   "We've got 12 girls back that went to substate last year," Hicks said. "We got beat nine to eight in the substate, and in that game, I felt like we had some injured, and some sick girls trying to play that day, and we had some disharmony on the team.
   "This year, the whole team has a wonderful attitude. They've worked me to death all year long. Everybody's getting along great, and all 12 of those girls can play, and I'm just expecting them to be a whole lot better this year."
   With senior pitchers Danielle Williams and Jessica Moffitt leading the Lady Ranger defense, along with sophomore Ryann Musick, Hicks feels that his team will be a force to be reckoned with.
   Of Williams and Musick, Hicks said: "Both of those girls average walking one or one and a half girls a game. They give up two or three hits a game, and they're just terrific. I think we probably have the best pitching staff in Class A this side of Knoxville. That's going to be one of our biggest assets this year."
   Juniors Julie Roberson, Kelly Allen and Medora Carrier are expected to be key players for Unaka this season as well.
   "Leadership; we've talked about that a lot, and I'm not expecting anybody to step out there and boss the team around -- I'm expecting most of my leadership to come through their performances, and we have the girls to do that," said Hicks
   With a balanced team of five freshmen, five sophomores, five juniors, and two seniors, the Unaka club should prove to be a menace in the conference for several years. Hicks gives all the credit to the players, saying that they do all the work to make the team the success that it has been, and that he anticipates it to be this year.
   "I'm just glad I have a good bunch of girls to work with," Hicks said. "The harmony on the team is great, the attitude is great, the work ethic is great. If we can keep from getting injured, and keep that great attitude and great work ethic, I think that these girls have a good shot at getting back to the state tournament this year, and next year, and the next one.
   "Right now, our goal is just getting to the substate, and I feel like we are very capable of that," said the Unaka skipper. "If we get there, we're very capable of beating the teams that we'll have to play. So we've got a great shot for the next three years of making the state tournament."
   The Lady Rangers will face Sullivan North tomorrow on their home field for the opener and will play Cherokee on Tuesday.
   "I've just had a lucky run up here of great women athletes," said Coach Hicks. "I've not done anything special -- I work the daylights out of them. I'm not a great coach. I'm just amazed that I keep getting these great athletes. I don't know what I'd do if I really had to coach. They go out there and make my job look easy for me."
   Last year's regional champion, University High, will give Unaka a run for its money at the top of the conference. With eight returnees in Cori McVeigh, Megan Backers, Brittany Carson, Cori Dodson, Kelly Foster, Torey Crane, Jessica McNutt and Georgia Walker, Josh Petty's team will try to defend their 24-5 record and district and regional crowns of last season.
   "I think we have the potential to have a successful season," Petty said. "Our starting pitcher is McVeigh, who had a phenomenal year last year. She worked hard all winter, and she'll be able to produce this year. Our catcher, Megan (Backers) does a great job at bat, and McNutt is one of the best defensive players in our conference at center field."
   Petty believe that the Lady Rangers will be the biggest threat to the Jr. Buc title since Unaka is returning all their starters from last year, and University High lost two seniors from last year.
   "Last year, they won the conference and the district and the region, and they had to beat us to get it," Coach Hicks said about the University team. "That was the first time in eight years that we've lost it. I expect them to be just as tough this year. That's going to be two really good ball games. I think whoever makes the fewest mistakes in those games will win.
   "Their girl (McVeigh) is about the fastest pitcher in our league," Hicks added. "If we can hit her, we can beat them. In the past, I think my kids have been scared of her, but they've taken it on as a goal this year to work to get to bat on the ball."
   The Cloudland squad could hold some new turns this season. With senior Tryphena Denton leading the Lady 'Landers from the mound, the girls from Roan Mountain hope to give their opponents something to worry about this year.
   "We'll be better than we were last year," said Cloudland assistant coach Jerry Lunsford. "We'll hit pretty good, and should be able to play good defense. It really depends on the pitching more than anything. Everybody's back but one player."
   The Lady Highlanders, experience will give the team an advantage over teams with younger players or teams hurt by graduating seniors. Lunsford said their strengths will be the players, experience and their ability to hit the ball.
   "(Denton) is a senior this year. She was the best pitcher last year and hits the ball good," said Lunsford. "Kayla Blevins can pitch pretty good."
   If the Cloudland team can combine hold up their defense in addition to their strong batting, they will be expected to have a successful season. Lunsford, echoing the sentiments of all the coaches in the conference fears that Unaka could be a stumbling block.
   "We improved a lot last year, but I'd say they'll all be ahead of us," Lunsford said. "If you can't outpitch them, it's hard to outplay them."
   First-year North Greene coach Chris Gardenhour will be returning five players from last year's team. He expects pitcher Haley Williams and catcher Lindsay Evans to establish leadership for the rest of the team. Chelsea Wright, Kim Wilcox, and Bailey Morgan make up the rest of the returning players on a squad that is 15 strong.
   "I suspect we'll have a winning season," Gardenhour said. As a first-season coach, he was hesitant to make any solid predictions.
   "We haven't had a lot of opportunity to practice," he said. "We just got a lot from basketball."
   Gardenhour said the Lady Huskies have a balanced mixture of experience with his players.
   "It's pretty even between the classes," he said. Within the district, he expects Unaka and University High to be the biggest threat of stopping that winning season he is hopeful for.