July 23, 2013 12:21:37 AM
Gary Harris doesn't know where the next step will take the Heritage Academy fast-pitch softball team.
A year ago, Harris wasn't even sure if he would have enough players to field a squad in his first year at the school. More than two months later, the Lady Patriots had secured the No. 3 seed out of the North for the Mississippi Association of Independent Schools Class AAA Overall State tournament.
This year, the signs of growth are evident. The chain-link backstop that surrounded the softball field is gone and is going to be replaced by a brick enclosure. Harris also has plans for the rest of the field, but his first priority is building momentum after going from two victories in 2011 to 13 in 2012.
The season opener is Friday against Winston Academy in Louisville.
"I told the girls on the first day of two-a-days, I don't wear my championship ring (from Presbyterian Christian in Hattiesburg) around a lot, but I wore it the first time I met with them last year and I wore it that day," Harris said. "I showed it to them and told them to look at it and to imagine their own."
Harris gave his players homework after the first practice session. His assignment asked his players to design championship rings they would want if the team won a title. Harris acknowledges Heritage Academy might not have the talent of other teams in AAA, but that isn't going to stop them from setting championship goals.
"I want them thinking championship thoughts all of the time," Harris said. "I told them from the way you carry yourself in the dugout, from the way you get dressed, to the way you warm up every day, that has to be your primary focus."
The success the Lady Patriots tasted last season has allowed the team to start at a faster pace. Harris said the sound of the ball off his players' bats sounds heartier. He also sees the confidence the players gained from being one of the final eight teams in AAA last year. This year, just getting to the overall state tournament won't be enough because Harris wants his team to get there and "do damage."
Heritage Academy will have to take the next step without Madison Sears, a senior transfer, who anchored the team in the circle. New Hope High School transfer Kaitlin Oswalt will take over as the team's No. 1 pitcher this year.
"The prospect of not having someone in the circle this year kept me up nights," Harris said. "We had to have somebody who had experience throwing the ball. Losing Madison Sears was big. ... Having Kaitlin, she is just going to be a sophomore, and having her for, hopefully, three years to give us some continuity and stability in the circle, I think we're going to be as strong up the middle as any team I have had in a while."
Harris said this year's Heritage Academy team compares favorably up the middle to his 2010 Presbyterian Christian team that won that school's first AAA softball crown. With Caitlin McLain at catcher, Brooklyn Waldrep at second base, Macy Walters at shortstop, and Shiloh Ellis in center field, Harris likes the core of his team.
Seventh-grader Macy Nordquist will compete for playing time at third base, Katlyn Petty returns at first base, and the 14- to 15-player team will have new faces in left field and in right field.
"I think we're optimistic and know we can do it," Petty said. "Last year, we would have never thought we could get to state. Now that we did it and we are better this year, we know we can do it and go and go farther."
Harris said the challenge remains to grow the program at the younger levels to ensure it will have continuity so future classes can hone that championship mind-set.
"It is still not cool to play softball at Heritage despite the season we had last year just because of the history of Heritage softball," Harris said. "I told the girls your legacy is going to be what this thing looks like in two to three years."
McLain said Harris has focused on getting the seniors to take ownership of the team and to get them to show the younger players how things need to be done. She, too, believes the Lady Patriots are going to take the things they learned last season and use them to their advantage. She now knows the Lady Patriots can make the "simple plays," which is something they struggled with in 2012, and are ready to break out and do more.
"We would just have innings where we would get the first two outs and then when it came time to make easy plays and get the third out it was difficult and the innings dragged on," McLain said. "I feel like in the state tournament we were better at getting into an inning and right out so we didn't wear ourselves down.
"I didn't believe it was the same team. At the beginning, we were just scattered and doing our own thing. By the end of the season, we were all working together and hanging out and having fun."
That sounds like a recipe for success, even if Harris or the players don't know how many steps it will take them to get there.
"I have always wanted to win state, so doing it in our senior year would be perfect," Ellis said. "(Harris) is pushing us harder this year because I think he knows we have a good chance."
Adam Minichino is the Sports Editor for The Commercial Dispatch.
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