Photo: Members of the Southside High School varsity softball team gather for a photo during the Etowah County Chapter of the Fellowship of Christian Athletes’ 2020 Media Day last Sunday (Feb. 23) at Rainbow Presbyterian Church. Pictured, sitting, from left: Kaylee Brown, Lynnsey Hunt, Alexis Rennhack, Austyn Patterson, Savannah Yancey. Standing: head coach Brett Yancey. (Chris McCarthy/Messenger)
By Chris McCarthy, Publisher/Editor
Several area high school softball teams participated in the Etowah County Chapter of the Fellowship of Christian Athletes’ Media Day last Sunday (Feb. 23) at Rainbow Presbyterian Church in Rainbow City.
Local coaches and players shared their thoughts about the 2020 season during the event, which was put together and coordinated by FCA Etowah County Chapter Executive Director Brian Mintz. Several teams have a few games under their belts, while several others are rescheduling due to wet weather over the past few weeks.
Class 5A, Area 12 with Etowah and Alexandria
With 10 seniors and juniors gracing a veteran-laden roster, head coach Brett Yancey believes his current squad is more than capable of ending the program’s four-year state tournament appearance drought.
“This group basically has started as ninth and 10th graders, and we’re finally an upper-class team. Just based on experience, I really expect us to have one of the best years we’ve ever had. These girls really have matured and bonded together, and the chemistry is so much better. We preach treating one another like family, and it’s a blessing for me to spend time with these girls.”
Much of the success for the 2020 Lady Panthers rests on the right arm of senior pitcher Ale-xis Rennhack, who last season went 21-17 with a 2.90 earned run average and 100 strikeouts in 195 innings.
“We feel like we’re going to win every ball game that Lexi pitches in,” said Yancey. “Lexi’s a warrior who will only get better as the season goes along. As she goes, we’ll go. Lexi’s also a very smart kid, so she really thinks while she’s pitching.”
Also returning is senior catcher and four-year starter Karlee Brown, who was a first-team All-Messenger selection and a second-team All-State pick after batted .423 with 55 hits, 44 RBI, 40 runs scored, 12 doubles, two home runs and 18 stolen bases.
“In my opinion, Kaylee is the best catcher in North Alabama,” said Yancey. “She just finished playing basketball a week ago and hasn’t missed a beat, so she’s a heck of an athlete. I expect her to really relish her role as a leader this year, and she leads by the way she plays. She also doesn’t like to lose, which is huge.”
Also back are junior second baseman Lynnsey Hunt and junior shortstop Savannah Yancey.
“We kind of split up our [bating] lineups, and as the No. 6 batter, Lynnsey is kind of our second leadoff hitter, so she plays an important role,” said Brett Yancey. “Sydney has also matured a lot and had a great summer playing [travel ball] all over the country. She takes pride in the little things, which is very important. Lynnsey and Sydney have been playing together since they were able to walk, so that really gives strong defense up the middle. I expect a great year from both of them.”
Senior third baseman Austyn Patterson recently underwent surgery for a torn labium and is expected to miss the season. She will sign a softball scholarship with Snead State early next month.
“We’ll missed Austyn tremendously this year,” said Brett Yancey. “She was a great hitter for us down the stretch last season. But she’ll still be a leader for us and will be a great asset for us coaches in the dugout.”
The 2019 Lady Panthers made it to the semifinals of the Class 5A West Central Regional, which Yancey believes in the toughest on the state.
“Usually the teams that come out of our region make it to the state title game, and I don’t see that changing this year,” he said.
Brett Yancey and his players are well aware of the program’s repuation of fielding a competitive team year in and year out.
“Before our first full practice after we got the basketball girls back, I talked to them about how the [school] name on their jersey makes them a target because of the success we’ve had over the past 10 years. People are going to give us their ‘A’ game every time out. The past few groups we’ve had played top-notch travel ball, and you see the results. Won/loss records [during the [regular season] don’t mean anything, and we play a very competitive schedule for a reason. We don’t back down from playing the elite teams, and that’s helps to make us better and to prepare us for the playoffs.”
Brett Yancey, who is battling esophageal cancer, is thankful for the support he’s received from the school and the communities of Southside and Rainbow City.
“It’s brought the whole softball program closer together. I couldn’t ask for a better group of kids and a better support group. I expect us to do great things this year.”
Class 5A, Area 12 with Southside and Alexandria
Head coach Kim Jones acknowledged that the team suffered heavy losses from graduation.
“We’re very young, but our girls had a good offseason and are working extremely hard. All three teams in our area are very competitive. The best we can do as coaches is try and prepare the girls and hope for the best.”
Jones pointed to senior Lexi Brown, junior Hally Bennett and sophomores Ellington Jones and Anna Jones as key contributors.
“Lexi can play catcher, second base or in the outfield and she had a very strong stick, so hopefully she’ll be one of our biggest leaders on the team. Anna played third base last year but we’re looking for her to play a lot at first to replace Alexis Phillips, so hopefully Anna can fill her shoes. Hally is pretty much the most all-around utility player that I have. She can catch and she can play any outfield or infield position.
“Ellie is one of our younger players who plays in the outfield and has also been catching. She’s been working really hard on her hitting, so we’re looking forward to what she can do at the plate. I tell all our girls that the more positions you can play, the more chances you’ll have to be on the field.”
Class 4A, Area 12 with Cherokee County, Anniston, White Plains and Jacksonville
The Lady Eagles return seven starters from last year’s North Central Regional Tournament team that was one win away from qualifying for the state tournament
“We’re super-excited about this year,” said head coach Jana Shields. “My pitchers and by 2, 4 and 4 spots in the lineup are back, so we’ve got some big things planned. We’re a little bit anxious right now, but once we get a few games under our belts, we’ll feel a little better.”
Hokes Bluff has qualified for regional in three out of the four years that Smith has been at the helm of the program.
“This group has been there and knows what it’s all about and wants to get back,” she said.
Smith pointed to her four seniors as key components to the season – outfielder Emilee Latronico, outfielder Mackenzie Coffelt, pitcher Ma-dison Ingram and outfielder Kennedy Fox.
Ingram, Latronico and Coffelt all made the All-Messenger team. Ingram batted .320 along with 32 hits, 24 RBI, 20 runs scored, five homes runs, nine doubles and two triples; Latronico had a .416 batting average with 47 hits, 26 runs scored and 17 steals; and Coffelt finished with a .333 batting avg., 36 hits, 26 runs scored and six doubles.
“Those are our big bats, so we’re expecting them to do good things,” said Smith. “They’re also good kids who love to play, so we’re hoping they have good, productive seasons.”
Class 3A, Area 12 with Hanceville, Susan Moore and J.B. Pennington
Glencoe head coach Tommy Stanley usually is not one to put the wagon before the horse, but he and his Lady Yellow Jackets have set a few specific goals for the 2020 season.
“We want to host the area tournament, especially for our seniors who have put in so much hard work and dedication,” he said. “We also want to not just get to the regional tournament but make a little noise when we’re there and go a little further.”
Glencoe last year finished second in the area and won a game at the North Central Regional Tournament.
After having no seniors on the roster last year, Stanley is looking forward to what his senior class of Hylan Hidgon, Anna Claire Hipps, Madalin Gorham, Caroline Phillips, Gracey Gough and Hannah Whittenberg will bring to the table.
Higdon and Hipps signed softball scholarships earlier this year, the former with Judson College and the later with Pensacola State.
Higdon was a member of The Messenger’s 2019 all-area softball team after finishing with a 2.12 earned run average and 193 strikeouts. Gough, who played for Glencoe her sophomore season, returns after spending last year in Missouri.
“Gracey is a great addition to our ball club,” said Stanley. “She brings an additional voice of encouragement to every girl out there. Madalin did a little bit of everything last year and wound up being my clutch pinch hitter a lot of the time. Hylan, of course, has been the workhorse of our pitching staff the last few years, and she wants to take the ball in the circle every time out. Every else is back from last year. If we work hard and do what we’re supposed to do, I think we’ve got a chance to be a pretty good ball team.”
Class 2A Area, Area 12 with Cleveland, Southeastern and Tarrant
Entering his 15th at the helm of the West End softball program, head coach Ricky Watkins will not be fielding a young team in 2020.
“We have five seniors, which is the most I’ve had since 2015,” he said. “We have seven returning starters, so I expect us to be competitive.”
Key parts of the senior class are Montanna Mashburn and Kayley Dobbins, who have been starters since the eighth grade.
“Montanna’s on the fourth position, so she’s one of our most versatile players. Kayley plays shortstop. We got some new faces playing new positions, but all of those girls have a lot of experience.”
Watkins will employ a pitching-by-committee approach this season with four players expected to log significant innings – Dobbins, senior Lexi Armstrong, junior Rylie Lowe and sophomore Anna Mayo.
“This group has been to [the North Central Regional Tournament] in Tuscaloosa every year they’ve played, so they know what it takes to win,” said Watkins. “I’ve seen this group of girls grow up, and I want them to go out with a good feeling this year.”
Class 1A, Area 12 with Appalachian, Jacksonville Christian and Ragland
Although her Lady Conquerors are both young and inexperienced with eight middle schoolers on the roster, head coach Angie Waits sees some positives for the upcoming season.
“We’ve got some athleticism, we’ve got good attitudes and we’re working hard. We’ll have a few bumps along the way this season, but from the beginning to the end, I think you’ll see tremendous improvement in this bunch.”
Waits pointed to seniors Erica Snow and Aly-ssa Padgett as key contributors.
“Alyssa is a great pitcher. She really had to carry the team on her shoulders last year, and she’ll have to do that again this year. We’re moving Erica from first base to catcher, and I think she’ll bring a lot to that position. Those two girls are our leaders, so we’ll probably go the way they go. We’re excited for the season.”
Waits sees a silver lining in Coosa playing its home games at the Gadsden Sports Complex off Meighan Boulevard.
“Since we don’t have a field on campus, every game is an away game for us, so playing somewhere else really doesn’t bother us. But it’s a nice facility and the city takes good care of it, so we’re not complaining.”
Although the 2019 Coosa team qualified for regionals, Waits consider a post-game conversation during the area tournament as the highwater mark of the season.
“After we got beat by Appalachian in the championship game, one of the umpires came up to me and said that we had the most sportsmanship he’s ever seen out of a high school softball team. That meant more to me than anything we accomplished on the field, and I expect the same thing out of our girls this year.”
Next week: FCA Baseball Media Day