Although there are a lot of unknowns for the Tahlequah fastpitch softball team, head coach Chris Ray isn’t panicking as he and his team inch closer to their season opener.
The Lady Tigers, who will open Monday with a road game at Sand Springs, played with seven seniors a year ago.
Emily Sampson, Lanie Sanders, Hailey Sams, Shelby Hensley, Meg Wynn, Alexa Cacy and Morgan Wofford are gone. It was a group that helped lead Tahlequah to back-to-back Class 5A State Tournament appearances.
Ray, now in year two as head coach, has two on this year’s roster — McKenna Wofford and Alexis Kelley.
Ray summed it up best earlier in the summer.
“There’s four kids on the roster that have their driver’s licence right now,” he said.
It’s a big change.
But Ray likes what he has at his disposal even though there isn’t much game experience.
“They get along really well together first of all,” he said following Thursday’s practice. “They’ve got team unity. They all tend to pull for one another.
“The best thing I like about us is we’re fairly versatile. We’ve got a few kids in the lineup that can hit for power. We’ve got some kids that can hit for average. We’ve got some kids that we can play small ball with. We’ve got some kids that can steal bases, and we hit and run offensively. We’ve got three or four different arms that we’re going to use and each of those kids bring a different speeds.
“I like the versatility. We’ve got a lot of moving pieces.”
Wofford, who will play at third base and also see time in the pitcher’s circle, and junior second baseman Betty Danner are the most experienced and are great pieces to build around. They will provide the punch in the middle of the lineup.
Danner was one of the more feared hitters on the roster as a sophomore. She batted .434 and had team highs in home runs (eight) and RBIs (38). She was tied with Sampson for the team lead in doubles with 15 and had a .500 on-base percentage.
“She was one of the more feared hitters in our lineup, and I’m glad to have her back for this year and the following year,” Ray said. “She hits for average. She has a good eye at the plate. She can hit the ball out of the yard. The thing about Betty is she has power to all fields. She does a really good job of getting the barrel through the ball.”
Wofford finished her junior season with a .418 batting average while hitting three homers and driving in 21 runs. Wofford will be counted on to be that senior leader.
“I know what I’m going to get with McKenna,” Ray said. “She’s done a really good job of developing entire plate coverage.
“She leads by example. McKenna is always one of the first ones to volunteer for things like fundraisers. She’s typically one of the first ones to practice, getting the field ready and getting the equipment ready. What she does will eventually rub off on the younger kids.”
Two sophomores, center fielder Mia Allen and shortstop Lexi Hannah, could be primed for breakout years at two of the more crucial positions defensively.
Tahlequah won’t have a primary pitcher like it had last year in Sanders. Only junior Bailey Jones and sophomore Kloie Vertz return with experience. Others expected to see time are freshman Mikah Vann, Wofford and Hannah, among others.
Jones posted a 1.96 earned run average across 68 innings as a sophomore. She recorded 35 strikeouts and issued six walks. Vertz worked in 7.2 innings where she registered six punchouts while not allowing an earned run.
Savannah Wiggins and Nevah Moreno will split time at catcher in a search for Sampson’s replacement. Wiggins can also play in the infield and outfield, while Moreno will also see time in the outfield.
Sophomores Hailey Enlow, who missed all of last year after shoulder surgery, and Christeney Holt will both see time at first base. Junior Josie Moffitt will get action as a utility player in the infield.
Joining Allen in the outfield will be Kelley and freshmen Jayley Ray and Vann. Ray can also play at third base.
Others who will contribute are sophomores Skyla Wilson, Chloe Sanders, Kelsey Chambers, and freshmen Linzi Woolard, Aubri Mitchell, Sierra Wiggins, Abigail Cacy and Justice Dry.
The Lady Tigers will get tested immediately with a tough opening-week schedule.
After Sand Springs, they jump right into District 5A-4 play Tuesday when they open at home against defending district champion Durant. They then close the week with an appearance in the always-loaded Broken Arrow Tournament on Friday and Saturday.
“We don’t have that big-game experience,” Ray said. “You get up there in the Broken Arrow Tournament and you’re playing the Mustangs and the Broken Arrows, those 6A powers. You just don’t know how your kids are going to react.
“I’m anxious to see how we react in big situations. There’s no secret or magic to it. You just have to keep putting kids in those situations. They either make plays or they don’t. Hopefully after a while it becomes second nature to make those plays in those pressure situations.”