Tahlequah stepped onto the playing field Monday, beginning preparations for its upcoming 2019 fastpitch season.
Monday was the first day high school teams could start fall practices. The Lady Tigers will open their season on Aug. 12 when they visit Sand Springs.
Chris Ray, who will be in his second year as head coach, saw a lot of things he liked over the summer, including an established bond.
"It's really important," Ray said. "I think that's one aspect of our summer conditioning program that really helped. We brought them in every Tuesday and Thursday, except for the OSSAA dead week. We lifted weights and we conditioned for two hours every morning and we had about a 90 percent participation rate, and that's not bad considering kids going on vacation and some kids having to work. You could see that continuity and that culture develop. They all get along and they all really like one another."
For opening week of practices it's about getting down the basics and fundamentals, as well as beating the heat.
"The first thing we try to do is get acclimated to the heat for a couple of hours," Ray said Thursday morning following the third day of practice. "We don't want to cram in too much in the first week. We're trying to get their arms back in shape and just get them back into a flow. A majority of these kids are pretty much used to it. There's 14 or 15 of them that play travel ball."
"We want to get them back to being accustomed to the way we want to do things, our bunt defenses, our first and third defenses, and try to get them back to our mindset," Ray added.
Ray's bunch will be young in 2019. Program foundations Emily Sampson, Lanie Sanders, Alexa Cacy, Hailey Sams, Meg Wynn, Shelby Hensley and Morgan Wofford have each graduated after helping Tahlequah to consecutive Class 5A State Tournament appearances.
There's just two seniors -- third baseman/pitcher McKenna Wofford and utility player Alexis Kelley -- on the roster. Second baseman Betty Danner and pitcher Bailey Jones are the only juniors.
The Lady Tigers also return a pair of sophomores who made big strides last year in infielder Lexi Hannah and outfielder Mia Allen.
Also back are juniors Savannah Wiggins and Heather Hendrickson, and sophomores Nevaeh Moreno, Hailey Enlow, Christeney Holt, Kloie Vertz, Skyla Wilson, Chloe Sanders and Kelsey Chambers.
Freshmen include Jayley Ray, Mikah Vann, Linzi Woolard, Aubri Mitchell, Sierra Wiggins, Abigail Cacy and Justice Dry.
Tahlequah is coming off a 24-17 season under Ray. The Lady Tigers had their season come to an end in the quarterfinal round of the state tournament with a setback to District 5A-4 opponent Durant.