Rebuilding isn’t a word that Chris Ray likes to throw around.
“Someone asked me the other day if I’m rebuilding and I said, ‘No, I don’t like the term rebuilding, I just like to use the term reloading,’” the Tahlequah softball head coach said Friday.
The Lady Tigers are currently in a massive personnel shift.
They will be going from experienced to inexperienced.
Consider it a youth movement.
Ray put it in perspective.
“There’s four kids on the roster that have their driver’s license right now,” he said.
Gone are Emily Sampson, Lanie Sanders, Hailey Sams, Shelby Hensley, Meg Wynn, Alexa Cacy, Morgan Wofford and Emma Akin — a group that helped get the program to back-to-back Class 5A State Tournaments.
On paper, it’s a drastic shift with seven seniors having departed.
But it’s one that Ray is comfortable with.
“I think we’ve got kids that can step in and fill those spots,” he said. “They know the bunt coverages. They know the first and third defenses. We teach the same thing all the way down through the middle schools. We spent the last week or two of school just kind of reemphasizing our expectations, our goals just to reiterate those things. Nothing’s really changed. The big thing during the summer is getting to know those four kids that come in from those K-8 schools and getting them use to our system.”
Tahlequah does have back some familiar names in Betty Danner, McKenna Wofford, Mia Allen, Lexi Hannah, Bailey Jones, Savannah Wiggins and Josie Moffitt.
“They saw a significant amount of playing time last fall as well as in the spring,” Ray said. “I pretty much know what I’m going to get with those individuals.”
Danner, who will be a junior, was the team’s top run producer last season. She knocked in 38 runs, hit a team-high eight home runs and batted .434 over 40 games. The second baseman also posted a .500 on-base percentage and shared team-high honors in doubles with 15.
“Offensively, Betty’s got the most pop of any of the kids we’ve got here,” Ray said. “She’s probably going to hit in the middle of the lineup somewhere.”
Wofford, a corner infielder who will one of just two seniors next season, batted .418 with three homers and 21 RBIs over 38 games.
“McKenna really developed last year and in the spring,” Ray said.
Jones will be one of six possibilities inside the pitcher’s circle. Jones is the most experienced after the graduation of Sanders. The junior-to-be had a 1.96 earned run average over 68 innings with 35 strikeouts against just six walks.
“Bailey threw about one-third of our games and we threw her against some pretty good competition,” Ray said. “She doesn’t walk very many hitters, she throws strikes and we’re going to put a pretty good defense behind her. She’s got the most experience.”
Wiggins and Moffitt were solid role players, while Allen, an outfielder, and Hannah, a middle infielder, contributed significantly as freshmen.
Others expected to see time at pitcher with Jones include Wofford, Hannah, Kloie Vertz, and freshmen Mikah Vann and Jayley Ray.
Either Wiggins, Heather Hendrickson or Nevaeh Moreno will look to fill Sampson’s spot at catcher.
Other infielders are Moffitt, Wiggins, Hailey Enlow, Christeney Holt, Vertz, Chloe Sanders, Kelsey Chambers, Ray, Linzi Woolard, Sierra Wiggins, Abigail Cacy and Justice Dry.
Alexis Kelley, the other senior-to-be, Savannah Wiggins, Hendrickson, Moreno, Skyla Wilson, Vann and Aubri Mitchell will vie for time in the outfield.
“We’re a lot faster than what we were last year, but I think the biggest thing that’s going to help this group is our versatility,” Ray said. “We have so many kids that can play multiple positions and we’re going to be able to do some things offensively that maybe we couldn’t do last year as far as putting pressure on defenses, using the bunt, using the hit-and-run and just straight stealing bases more.”
The Lady Tigers have missed their first four scheduled games of the summer due to rainouts, limiting them to the weight room and batting cage, but it’s paid dividends.
“We’ve gotten bigger and stronger,” Ray said. “The work ethic is good. They’re all showing up during the strength and conditioning portion of the summer and doing what they need to do. I think they’re excited and they’ve all bought in.”