July 26, 2014 10:28:24 PM
Softball practice at Heritage Academy is an all ages event.
Coach Gary Harris offers instruction on baserunning and game strategy to sixth- to 11th-graders as the sun beats down on the team at its morning practice. For Harris, the youth of his team gives him a chance to promote softball throughout the school and help build a program.
"I like my team. I like their character," Harris said.
Heritage Academy doesn't have any seniors, but it returns leaders from last year's team that was one game short of making the state tournament. Harris said juniors Brooklyn Waldrep, Macy Walters, and Kaitlyn Oswalt are great player-teachers and have helped coach up their younger teammates.
"They are very accommodating with the young players," Harris said.
Despite the youth of the squad, the Patriots expect to be a bigger and stronger team. Third baseman Tyler Rhett is confident in the team's hitting ability. She said the biggest challenge with a young team is getting players to know the game. As a sophomore, Rhett is
already a leader. She emphasized the importance of playing smart in the infield.
After two weeks of two-a-day practices, she is ready to get the season going.
"Once it starts, I think it will be easy," Rhett said.
Heritage Academy will start its season at 5 p.m. Monday at Oak Hill Academy. It will play its first home games Tuesday (3 p.m. against Marshall Academy and at 6 p.m. vs. Kirk Academy) before it plays host to Starkville Academy on Thursday. The team will play Saturday in a tournament hosted by Starkville Academy at the Starkville Sportsplex.
The busy opening-week slate will test Oswalt, who said she never stops pitching. In her second year at the school after transferring from New Hope High School, Oswalt is being recruited by several colleges. Her goal is to make the state tournament, which the Patriots have missed by a game two years in a row.
"I want to get stronger with my hitting and get the velocity up on my pitching," Oswalt said.
The Patriots will start the season without Waldrep, their starting catcher. Waldrep has mononucleosis, and the date of her return is unknown. Harris said a lot will depend on when Waldrep can return.
Harris, who is in his third year at Heritage Academy, said the sport is becoming more popular at the school. When he arrived, he said playing softball wasn't cool.
"We're trying to change the culture," Harris said.
Harris also is changing the look of his program. The team will show off a new fence around the field. It also will continue to take advantage of indoor facilities on campus. Harris said offseason workouts and practices were well attended and provided an opportunity to teach his young players. He said he expects his team to compete against locals like Oak Hill Academy, Starkville Academy, and Central Academy.
"Our goal is to be in the top four out of the north and to make the state tournament," Harris said.