July 30, 2010 11:56:00 AM
WEST POINT -- Depth was a problem for Oak Hill Academy fast-pitch softball coach Marion Bratton in 2009.
Season-ending injuries to Paige Dawkins and Mary Helon Hays left the Lady Raiders without two starters and created openings for younger players.
Without two key contributors on offense, Bratton''s team had little margin for error and was forced to live with the growing pains associated with an inexperienced squad.
A lack of depth won''t be a problem this season.
The return of Dawkins and Hays for their senior seasons has created plenty of competition for playing time, which is something that has Bratton smiling.
"I have 12 or 13 girls pushing for a starting-nine spot," Bratton said. "I have three girls -- Hays, Tori Ellis, and Maegan Ellis -- who can play every position on the field."
Oak Hill Academy will have to find a replacement for catcher Megan Holton, who spent most of last season working with Mamie Allen. Now a sophomore, Allen will pitch most of the innings this season, although Bratton said he won''t work the right-hander too hard. He said he will give Maegan Ellis plenty of opportunities to throw to keep Allen fresh.
The players are equally optimistic, especially Dawkins, who suffered a torn anterior cruciate ligament and was forced to wonder what could have been.
Hays also missed last season after she was injured right above the ankle. Still, the Lady Raiders finished 13-11 and third in the Mississippi Association of Independent Schools Class AA North State tournament and second in their conference.
"I am pretty much back to 100 percent," Dawkins said. "I am hitting a lot better."
This season, Oak Hill Academy believes it can do more.
"I think we have a really good chance of being good this year, with everyone stepping up and all of the younger girls," senior outfielder/catcher Abby Falkner said. "I think (the younger girls) can really push us to be better."
Senior outfielder Anne Stevens said the fact that younger players are pushing their teammates for playing time is motivating everyone. She said that attitude has carried through two-a-day practices, which started last week. She hopes that mind-set remains alive into October for the state playoffs.
"Coach Bratton is always going to play the person who is the best," Stevens said. "It puts a lot of pressure on you to play ... "
Falkner finished Stevens'' thought by saying none of the players can be comfortable because another player can come up and take a starting position.
If maintained, that shared mind-set figures to push Oak Hill Academy deep into the postseason, and, possibly, to allow it to contend for some serious hardware.
The seniors won''t settle for anything less.
"I think we have a lot of potential to go farther than we did last year," Falkner said.
Said Stevens, "Winning state would really be cool for our senior year. I think we have the potential to do it. The competition just makes us want to work harder."
All of that hard work and competition means Bratton will have decisions to make. That''s fine with him because he will go with the ones who are making the plays in the field and who are delivering at the plate.
"It all boils down to the mound and making the routine plays in fast-pitch," Bratton said. "If we score a few runs and play defense and do your job and come together as a team, I think we will be all right. I am very proud of the girls. They are a great bunch of girls to work with. They try to do everything I ask of them. That is always a good thing for a coach."
Adam Minichino is the Sports Editor for The Commercial Dispatch.