July 29, 2014 12:50:43 PM
It's easy to recognize the excitement in Cass Tapley's voice.
The start of a new season typically rekindles the enthusiasm and anticipation in every coach and player, but it is different for Tapley. In his second season back as coach of the Hebron Christian fast-pitch softball team, Tapley sees signs of potential in this year's team that resemble some of the school's best squads in recent memory.
"I think we're going to be pretty good," Tapley said. "If our pitching comes along -- and it seems decent -- we'll be competitive. We'll see what they will do."
Hebron Christian will kick off its season at 7 tonight when it plays host to Clay County rival Oak Hill Academy. Coming off a sub-.500 season in which the team had only one senior -- Subrina Oswalt and three upperclassmen -- Tapley feels his team is more mature and experienced and ready to face higher expectations. He said he has talked to his players about those goals, but he cautions that it will be important to continue to have fun with a 19-player roster that includes only seven upperclassmen.
"This is the first time that I have coached them that they have expectations," Tapley said. "I am trying to work them a little harder. They have a lot of potential."
In 2008, Hebron Christian won District 3A. In 2010, the Lady Eagles went 27-13, were the runner-up in the Mississippi Association of Independent Schools Class A North State tournament, and took third in the overall Class A State tournament. Hebron Christian lost seven seniors from that team, including All-State players Magen Tapley, Cass Tapley's daughter, and Cathryn Moore, and five starters. In 2011, Chloe Tapley, who also is Cass Tapley's daughter, earned her second consecutive honor as The Dispatch's Private School Fast-Pitch Player of the Year. The team went 1-2 in the Class A North State tournament and didn't advance to the state tournament. Both losses were by one run.
Since then, Hebron Christian has been rebuilding. Tapley took a year off from coaching in 2012 before returning to the field last season. He believes the players are better prepared to handle the expectations he will place on them. He acknowledges that it might take another year for a five-player sophomore class that includes Rebekah Falkner, Brooke Griffin, Holly Hudson, Millie Hudson, and Jana White to mature into a class of players that resembles the 2010 team. But he also admits that this year's team is more talented that the 2010 squad, which is plenty of reason to be excited.
"They just haven't had the opportunity to win big," Tapley said. "They have absolutely no idea how good they can be. They have no clue."
Tapley said the commitment the players showed to softball increased from last season, which is another reason to be optimistic. He said pitching again will be a key. Griffin, who played a key role in the circle last season, will be one of a handful of players who will be expected to contribute.
"(Pitching) is everything," Tapley said. "We're not looking for someone to come in and strike out 15 a game. We just want our pitchers to come in and not walk batters. If they do that I will be happy."
Second baseman Shelby Arnold, who has endured three anterior cruciate ligament reconstructions in the past three years, is one of three seniors. Savannah Gable and Mary Fielder, a transfer from East Webster High School, are the other seniors. Victoria Ferguson, Brynn Latham, Laura Smith, and Abi Boutwell make up the junior class.
Tapley said he is looking for leadership from Ferguson, who has been starting since the eighth grade. He said Latham will play a variety of positions, including designated hitter.
Tapley said sophomores Falkner and Griffin will share work at shortstop and pitcher. He said Holly Hudson will move from shortstop to third base. He said Millie Hudson will provide depth at second base, while White will showcase a good arm and a "gritty" game in moving to catcher.
Follow Dispatch sports editor Adam Minichino on Twitter @ctsportseditor.
Adam Minichino is the Sports Editor for The Commercial Dispatch.
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