October 5, 2010 7:50:00 AM
STARKVILLE -- Starkville Academy''s softball season ended Saturday with a 10-6 loss to Oak Forest (La.).
The loss left the Lady Volunteers (21-14) one game short of advancing to the final four of the Mississippi Association of Independent Schools Class AAA playoffs.
The team overcame early-season struggles and returned to the state playoffs after missing the tournament in 2009.
And the way Starkville Academy clinched a spot in the state field epitomized how it played this season.
In the AAA North Half tournament, the Lady Volunteers beat Magnolia Heights on the road for the first time in school history. They followed up that win with a 2-1 victory against Madison-Ridgeland.
For a team with one senior -- albeit an All-Star -- and a new full-time pitcher, expectations were modest, specially coming off a 23-8 season filled with a tournament title and statement wins.
"If you would have told me we were going to be 21-14 and make it to the tourney I would have taken it," Starkville Academy coach Jessica Dickens said. "With so much uncertainty, I wasn''t sure how we were gonna do."
Dickens tinkered with her lineup before the season, even moving fourth-year catcher Bailey Wofford to shortstop as the Lady Volunteers broke in new pitchers Julianne Jackson and Mary Austin Barber.
Roughly 10 games into the season, the Lady Volunteers opted for Jackson to be their go-to pitcher and moved Barber back to shortstop, her natural position.
After a few games, Wofford was back behind the plate. As the team''s lone senior, Wofford delivered with a team-leading .326 batting average and sure-fire defense at home plate.
"The ceiling is very bittersweet because Bailey has been such a huge part," Dickens said. "When she''s not behind the plate, you can tell a huge difference. Even though it''s just one senior, that''s a big loss. I feel confident we can fill it, but it will take a lot of girls playing in different roles."
Wofford has received interest from East Mississippi Community College, among other schools, but hasn''t received an offer to play at the next level. Dickens said she''s unsure if Wofford wants to play college ball, but is positive she would be a successful player.
"She''s probably one of the best shortstops in our league, even though she only played a couple of games there for us this year," Dickens said. "She can play anywhere, and there''s no question in my mind she can play junior college ball. I would hate to see someone with her talent and ability not play at the next level. But that''s something she has to decide."
Starkville Academy hovered around .500 and struggled to perform in all phases of the game until a home game Aug. 10 against Washington School. Coming off the Starkville Academy Invitational, the Lady Volunteers lost to the Generals 9-0 in their conference opener.
"We played so bad and were not there mentally," Dickens said. "We came back after that game and did a little wake-up call in practice. I started seeing a lot more intensity and drive after that. They were a little embarrassed and had a chip on their shoulder. After that game, there was a turning point in their attitude. They knew they could compete with anybody."
Starkville Academy''s playoff run included an opening-round 3-0 loss to Copiah Academy and a 6-2 win against Parklane Academy in the loser''s bracket.
The Lady Volunteers will take the field for spring workouts with a strong returning core of Jackson, Barber, and first baseman Megan Aucoin. Dickens hopes underclassmen Karly Lockhart and Lauren Ware will build on the starts they earned due to injuries. She also hopes Kaci Johns, who played a handful of junior varsity games this season before suffering a season-ending arm injury, can provide another option in the circle.
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