August 19, 2010 10:08:00 AM
STARKVILLE -- With nine seniors, it''s easy to hang hopes on your most experienced players.
But when that one third of your team''s key players piloted the ship to a four-win season a year ago, you''re pinning even more hope on that group taking a bigger step toward title-winning form.
Starkville High School slow-pitch softball coach Lisa Spencer is as confident as she has been since 2007, when the Lady Jackets won a district title and advanced to the second round of the state playoffs.
That team had an element lacking from Spencer''s 2010 bunch: Hitting.
In fact, she''s adamant the only part of the game hindering a repeat of three years ago is consistent plate appearances.
"If our offense can match our defense we can have that kind of year," Spencer said ahead of today''s season opener against Kosciusko. "(We''re doing) lots of (hitting) practice. We''re still swinging the bats. Every day it''s drills, drills, drills, and drills aimed at us becoming better hitters. It''s about 50 percent of practice, and I expect to see a change."
Spencer has proof of progression, though. The Lady Jackets lost a pair of jamboree games last weekend, but in a fashion where one clutch hit could have salvaged an otherwise quality performance. SHS lost to South Pontotoc 3-2 in nine innings and saw a game-long tie turn sour in a walk-ridden final frame against Houston. The walkoff disappointment ended 5-2.
What Spencer and her staff saw in the team''s offensive and defensive disparity only confirmed the preseason concerns. But in three days of practice since Saturday, players are a confident of a turnaround but unsure of when it will begin.
"It being our first two games, I think we did OK," outfielder Tiyuana Ringo said. "We''re coming along and practicing at it a lot, and from our point of view we''re getting better. It''s really hard to say we''re where we want to be because only the season will tell."
The team-wide consensus is steady hitting should be enough to round out the team with a large senior base and strong defense.
Last year, the Lady Yellow Jackets found out bad luck strikes everyone.
A loss to a rival on a highly disputed call and a lost playoff spot told the tale of a team that could have overcome such a dreadful experience if it had played to its potential.
On the final day of the 2009 regular season, Starkville lost a one-run lead against Columbus High on a runner''s interference call it thought should have been made. The play would have ended the game, but the Lady Falcons went on to score two runs and earn the final playoff berth.
"I think it''s more of a motivation for us to be a better team," Ringo said. "We lost to bad luck, and as much as that hurt, it means we have to work harder than we have before. The next time we play, next time we practice it has to be better than before.
"We knew we shouldn''t have lost, and it should have come down to that."
Ringo will man the outfield with Shannelle Johnson, Ty Davis, and Riyaunna Clark, giving Spencer speed at all four positions. Verlyncia Leonard and Jonissa Buchanan anchor the infield at shortstop and second base, respectively.
But returning experience isn''t the only reason the Lady Yellow Jackets are confident.
The current facilities upgrades spearheaded by athletic director Dr. Stan Miller will see the team pop tags on a new scoreboard. Renovated concessions and a new public address system are other highlights that have boosted team morale.
Ringo hopes the backing of the administration will continue to lift the team''s confidence as the season progresses.
"All of that helps because you feel like people care about what you''re doing," Ringo said. "It''s nice to walk out here and know this is our home field."
1. Weatherspoon's rebounding takes off in SEC play COLLEGE SPORTS
2. Columbus basketball teams sweep Tupelo HIGH SCHOOL SPORTS