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Work pays off for Starkville Academy

 

Adam Minichino

 

Jessica Dickens hopes the work the Starkville Academy fast-pitch softball team put in in the offseason will pay dividends this season. 

 

If Saturday is any indication, the Lady Volunteers should be just fine. 

 

Coming off a loss to Hebron Christian on Friday, Starkville Academy defeated Heritage Academy 19-2 in five innings and Central Academy 16-13 before losing 8-3 to Oak Hill Academy in its third and final game at the Heritage Academy tournament at Propst Park. 

 

The tournament originally was scheduled to be a five-team, double-elimination event, but that format was scrapped Thursday after Winston Academy dropped out. As a result, each of the four teams played three games. 

 

Starkville Academy, which lost to Hebron Christian 2-0 in its season opener, started the quickest of the four, scoring five runs in the top of the first inning thanks to four errors. The Lady Volunteers had 11 hits in the opener and eight more in game two before getting only one against Mamie Allen in the nightcap. 

 

Still, first-year Starkville Academy coach Jessica Dickens was "fairly" pleased with her team''s showing. 

 

"We have been doing a lot of conditioning the last three weeks to get them ready for days like today," Dickens said. "I thought they handled it pretty well. They''re going to have to get used to days that are a lot longer than this. They''re going to have to get tougher, but I think this was a great way to start the season, and to give them a taste of what it is going to be like." 

 

Dickens had to be delighted by the effort of Julianne Jackson. The right-hander, who is expected to share the pitching duties with Mary Austin Barber after the graduation of Lyndsey Haynes, struck out the first 12 she faced against Heritage Academy. Logan Waggoner and Hannah Hawkins worked walks around two more strikeouts before Brooklyn Waldrep had the Lady Patriots'' only hit, a two-run single.  

 

On another day, the hit might not have come had the coaches agreed to a 15-run mercy rule after four innings, which would have been in effect Saturday. 

 

"That was incredible," Dickens said of Jackson''s performance. "We were going to take her out and put someone else in, but we wanted to see if she could get a no-hitter. That is an incredible way to start, but it sets a high standard as well." 

 

Jackson was equally as strong against Central Academy, allowing only two hits and two runs and striking out four in four innings. She left with a 16-2 lead and had to re-enter the pitching circle with two outs and her team leading 16-13 in the bottom of the fifth. She got the final out for her first save. 

 

"I don''t even think she pitched a junior varsity game last year," said Dickens, who was an assistant coach on the team last season. "This is really it for her. She transferred in from Starkville Christian the year before last and she pitched some there, but she wasn''t seeing the kind of hitters in that league that she is seeing here." 

 

Jackson makes it looks easy when she is in the circle. She doesn''t have a hysterical presentation, or windup, and her ease of motion helps her have control of her pitches. One of those pitches is a curveball Dickens said Jackson taught herself by working with her father and by playing with different grips and rotations. 

 

"One day Bailey Wofford (the team''s catcher) said, ''Coach, come here and look at this. Stand behind me, I promise I will catch it,'' " Dickens said. "It was wicked. It started straight out and curved way to the outside. Coach (Kyle) Morgan and I could see it breaking from (the dugout) today. 

 

"She has never really until this year had a formal pitching lesson. Everything she has learned to do has been pretty much on her own. She is a tough girl. She is a hay bailer, so she is used to it. I feel very confident she will be able to do the job for us on the mound." 

 

Wofford, the team''s leadoff hitter, reached base on 12 of 13 at-bats (one walk). She had a two-run inside-the-park home run and scored four runs in the first game. Jackson also had two doubles, and Megan Jones had two RBIs.  

 

Against Central Academy, Wofford had a single, double, triple, and four RBIs and Jackson had a single and two RBIs, as the Lady Volunteers capitalized 14 walks. 

 

While Jackson was impressive to watch from Starkville Academy''s perspective, she was a nightmare for Alan Hawkins and Heritage Academy. 

 

Hawkins, who was filling in for head coach Bud Lowe, who missed the games due to illness, said the Lady Patriots battled nerves in game one. The team, which has only one junior and one sophomore on its 12-player roster, looked like it was in its season opener, committing 14 errors. 

 

But Heritage Academy made vast improvements in each of the next two games. Katlyn Petty doubled and scored on a triple by Allie Lowe to help the team tie Oak Hill Academy at 2. A groundout by Kristen Phillips then gave the Lady Patriots a 3-2 lead that was short-lived. 

 

In the third game, Petty, Phillips, and Catelin McLain had RBIs to help the team build a 4-0 lead that didn''t last long. Phillips delivered an RBI groundout that put the Lady Patriots back ahead 10-9, only to see Central Academy score the next nine runs en route to an 18-10 victory. 

 

"They made some throws they probably shouldn''t have tried to make (in the first game)," Hawkins said. "But the second game we came back and the nerves settled down, we had a little bit better focus, we made the right throws, and started hitting the ball. I was real proud through the first few innings of the third game, but I think the heat finally took its toll. 

 

"Our goal, as young as we are, is to learn the game and to have fun with it and to improve every game, so far we have done that." 

 

Starkville Academy will play at 4 p.m. Monday at Oak Hill Academy, while Heritage Academy will play at 5 p.m. Monday at Carroll Academy. 

 

 

Adam Minichino is the Sports Editor for The Commercial Dispatch.

 

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