Teams get in final tweaks for season

Photo by Dave Boyd
Pitcher Ryann Musick winds up for the Lady Rangers on Saturday at Hicks Field.

By Marvin Birchfield

   With the softball season starting up on Monday, most of the area teams got an opportunity to get an early taste in the Lady Ranger jamboree this week.
   "This is a warm-up before the week of opening day, and you've got officials, you've got teams actually playing against each other without have just one official calling as with a scrimmage," said Unaka coach Ronnie Hicks. "You've got all these teams here and then you can go and scrimmage teams like Science Hill, Knox Powell, and Unicoi County, then you can schedule three or four good teams."
   The jamboree featured a total of 18 teams, which ranged from class of 1-A to 3-A with a couple of schools competing out of state.
   "The only teams that didn't compete that were in our area was Hampton, University High, and Tennessee High," said Hicks. "We had Knox Powell, Mitchell County N.C., and Bristol (Va.).
   "With that mixture you can give teams a light schedule or mixed schedule, or even a tough schedule where you have to go out and play."
   Unaka has hosted the jamboree for over the past 10 years, which has become vital fund-raiser for the Ranger softball program.
   "It's our number one fund raiser. We have a $125 entry fee, and then $3 a head on the gate plus the concessions," said Hicks. "We make enough to know that we're not going to go broke on the season."
   One of the advantages of holding a jamboree with so many teams involved, it give college scouts an early look at all the great local talent.
   "This year we had a scouting service here the first day," said Hicks. "We had the King College coach here, and several other show up. Local colleges know about it, and when I go to the coaches clinic in Nashville, Tennessee Tech knows about it."
   One of the teams competing that is expected to have a good year this season was the Lady Warriors of Happy Valley.
   "We've only had about a week of practice with everybody, and we still have a lot of things to work on," said Happy Valley coach Karri Killen. "There's a lot of talent and we're trying to work out the kinks, and that's what we're hoping to do here in this jamboree. We're moving people around in a lot of different places in trying to get ready for the pre-season."
   With the experience on the field, the Warriors should give all the teams in the Watuaga Conference a run for their money.
   "We've got about six or seven people that played last year," said Killen. "We got a lot of expectations, but I'm not trying to live up to everybody's expectations -- we're going to take one game at a time. What I try to teach the girls is to get to that level, then you've got to take the extra steps, but I just expect for them to play hard and that's all I can ask for."
   Another team playing in the jamboree was the Lady 'Landers, who are expecting to make strides on an improved season of last year.
   "It's too early to tell how we're going to look. I just got through with an operation, and have only had a chance to practice the girls from basketball just one time," said Cloudland coach Gary Keith. "We're young and don't have a fast pitcher, but we have an experienced one.
   "We're going to play a bunch of good ball teams, and I just told the girls we're going to just try to improve every game."
   Keith is in his first season as the 'Landers coach, but he's hoping his prior experience can make a difference.
   "The thing about it is the girls down in Elizabethton know how to play fundamental softball, but I am blessed that some of these girls have played Little League," said Keith. "There's a few of these girls that still need to learn the fundamentals, so it makes it tough by the time they get up here as freshmen, and not being able to work on the simple things."
   And of course there is the Lady Rangers, who can make a run toward the state tournament if all the right things can go their way.
   "There's two big things and that is we're focused, because we let University High take the district, region and substate from us," said Hicks. "That's the first time we've had to travel, and almost getting beat by a team we should of drilled in the substate.
   "I think they've made up their mind that they don't want that to happen again. They have taken it to themselves to focus and concentrate, and I think that will be the difference this year."
   The Lady Rangers managed to outscore every team they competed against with the exception of Sullivan East, who they took to a scoreless tie in four innings.
   "I took on some good teams in this jamboree and I thought if we get our eyeballs beat out, then it would get us ready," said Hicks. "I was surprised as anybody was. This is just a good warm-up, and it's softball time in Tennessee."