Much expected of Lady Warriors

By Michelle Pope

   So far in the Watauga Conference softball season, Happy Valley has lived up to the expectations everyone has formed of them.
   With a solid team that includes six returning starters and a duo of deadly senior pitchers in Kortney Goulds and Alicia Dick, the Lady Warriors have fans and opponents alike murmuring of a possible scuffle for the conference title with the Unicoi County Lady Devils, who won the crown for four straight years.
   "We've got a lot of expectations," said Happy Valley coach Karri Killen. "Right now, we haven't practiced as much as I'd like to, but we'll be more competitive."
   The Lady Warriors return Goulds, who threw a 13-8 season last year, and Dick, 11-6. Besides the two pitchers, both of whom Killen expects to perform well with the bat also, Happy Valley has a balanced team of three other seniors, five juniors, three sophomores, and five freshmen. Four of the five seniors have four years of playing experience.
   Junior outfielder Christy Shell will help out with the pitching and left-handed freshman Tiffany O'Quinn is also expected to spend a few innings on the mound.
   The remaining four returning starters consist of junior shortstop Kate Powell, senior outfielder Terra Whaley, junior first-baseman Jessie Blevins, and senior catcher Mandy Byrd.
   Killen sees Unicoi, with their winning tradition, and the young but threatening Lady Cyclones as her teams' toughest conference competition. "They're both playing well right now," Killen said.
   Elizabethton, although somewhat inexperienced, has already made its mark on the field this season, after shutting out Sullivan South 9-0 in their season opener and forcing the seasoned Happy Valley team into an extra inning before taking the one-point loss.
   First-year coach Kenny Hardin said the team of 20 girls is well-rounded in both offense and defense. "Our pitching is strong, and so far we've been hitting the ball," he said.
   From last year's starting lineup, Hardin returns two pitchers in junior Kristie Keys, who also plays center field, and sophomore Jessica Robinson, who doubles at second base. Sophomore Katie Hubbard returns to the catching position, and junior left-fielder Abbie Jenkins is back.
   "We're just going to play it by ear and see what happens," Hardin said. "I hope we're up there at the end. They've played a lot of summer ball and a lot of fall ball. They seem to play really good together so far."
   Also coming from the bullpen are freshmen Mary Edgar and Britney Smith, and junior Sarah Ruston.
   With strong pitching, batting, and depth, Elizabethton should prove to be a menace to opponents, especially later in the season when some of the young athletes gain more playing experience on the field.
   "We're just really young," Coach Hardin said. "We have to learn how to play together and have to grow up some. A lot of other teams have seniors and juniors starting and we don't. We're just hoping for a really good season."
   Unicoi County, still smarting from the damage that graduation dealt, is returning only three starters from last season. Senior Stephanie Byrd will start as catcher, and Natalie Lockner, also a senior, returns to the outfield. Junior Rachel Edwards will pitch and play outfield.
   "We lost our All-State shortstop, pitcher, third-baseman, and outfielder who had all been in the program for four years," said Doyle Phipps, who is taking back over the reigns as softball coach after Charlie Baxter coached for the last several years.
   "Our first goal is to win the conference, district, region, and then go on and win the state tournament," Phipps said. "People and coaches think this may be the year that someone else may step up and win conference or district."
   Phipps is afraid that 'someone' might be Happy Valley.
   "They have everyone back, they have a good record, a good team, and they went to the regional finals," he said. "Elizabethton will also be strong, and Sullivan Central. A lot of teams are very capable."
   Carrying an undefeated conference record and a 42-7 overall record last year, the Lady Blue Devils will still be able to hit hard. "We're a pretty good hitting team," Phipps said. "We've got a pretty good pitching staff as well, but we've had injuries so we're not full strength. The pitching should come along though."
   Sullivan Central should have a slight edge of experience over many of the other teams in the conference, but the Lady Cougars are struggling with depth because of recent injuries. After already losing anticipated starting shortstop Shauna Haga to a torn ACL in basketball season, their number two pitcher, Sarah Faust, is now out for the season due to an injury.
   Central is getting back six starters from last year. The job of pitching will fall heavily on returning sophomore Bethany Haney, and senior Courtney Brickey will play at catcher. Senior Jennifer Rankins moves from second base to shortstop this season, while juniors Caitie Munal and Sarah Stone cover first and third bases. Left-fielder Shelley Ray, a junior, is the only outfielder with game experience.
   "Those two injuries were devastating," said Lady Cougar coach Dustin Williams. "Anytime you're in that situation, you're out of luck. As far as a starting team goes, we have a good one, but we don't have depth. We're very susceptible to illness and injury."
   Hampton is another team with a roster full of young players, but the Lady Bulldogs have eight of their starting lineup back for another season. With two solid pitchers in junior Heather Chambers and sophomore Melissa Norris, the team has defense covered. The team's lone senior, first-baseman Christine Newburn, is expected to offer leadership.
   Lady 'Dog coach Pat Kelly thinks that the team's youth will be an advantage in years to come as they gain experience this season. With one senior and two juniors, the rest of the roster is made up of freshmen and sophomores.
   "They're young, so they still make some young mistakes that we have to overcome, but we're going to get out there every day and practice and hope to have some opportunities to win some games," Kelly said.
   Although they have only three returners on a ten-woman team, Johnson County has set high goals this year.
   "We're young so it depends on how we pull together," said Lady Longhorn skipper Dana Smith. "We won't be on the bottom, but hopefully we'll be in the top four of the conference."
   After losing starting pitcher Laura Peters for the season to a torn ACL in basketball season, the team's strength will be their sophomore catcher Cayla Lewis. "It's her second year and she's already doing well," Smith said. "She calls the ballgame."
   Backup pitcher and first-baseman Katie Nelson has now moved to the number one pitching position, while third-baseman Sarah Wright, a freshman, takes over as backup.
   Smith hopes that Nelson will be able to handle the unexpected pressure that falls on a starting pitcher. Nelson held Science Hill at bay for three innings in Johnson County's opener, but all of the Lady Longhorn games this past week were canceled.
   "Your pitchers will be the ones who if they're doing their job, you'll be okay," Smith said. "If not, you're in trouble. We're working hard and going day to day to get some games under (Nelson's) belt so she is more comfortable on the mound, which is what I want."
   Sullivan North is returning a full team under the guidance of Harris Hoover. The starting infielders consist of pitcher Arissa Vaughn, catcher Lindsey Collins, first-baseman Brittany Harris, second-baseman Jessica Arnold, shortstop Shyan Redmond, and third-baseman Nikki Trent. Brittany Moore, Tosha Spears, and Kayla Hale return to the outfield for the Lady Raiders.
   While Vaughn offers solid pitching, the team struggled last year at bat. With a team of veterans however, the Lady Raiders hope to improve the offense to become a well-rounded team.
   Volunteer gets back two solid pitchers from last year in senior Kellie Simpson and junior Tierra Trammell. Seniors Brittany Mabe and Ashleah Dykes shine at shortstop and the outfield, while junior Mycah Arnold returns to the catching position.
   All-State center-fielder Ashley Bennett joined the ranks of injured players forced out of the softball season with a torn ACL in the basketball season.