The Lassiter, Pope and Mount Paran Christian softball teams excelled in a 2020 season filled with challenges.
As the 2021 campaign begins to unfold, all three are ready to make the necessary adjustments back to a traditional season, with the hopes of making a return trip to the state finals Columbus.
Lassiter is prepared for another successful season under coach Jason Campbell after winning the Class AAAAAA state championship last year.
“I expect us to win some games, and I expect us to falter along the way,” Campbell said. “Hopefully, at the end, we’ll play like we did last year and play our best softball.”
The Lady Trojans, who finished 27-9 last year, return to the field this season with holes to fill at catcher, shortstop, center field and first base.
They do return veteran experience to the field in starters Gracyn Tucker (3B) and Brooke Sims (DP/1B), who will now suit up as juniors. The Lady Trojans also have their starting pitching returning in Ellie Kean (senior) and Ashley Posey (junior).
Another challenge Lassiter will have to face is a competitive region that includes state runner-up Pope, along with Kennesaw Mountain, Kell, Sprayberry and Allatoona.
“We’ve got eight (other) teams in our region, and the top five, six or seven are all contenders for playoffs,” Campbell said. “Getting through our region is difficult. Pope is always at the top of any region that they would be in. Then you add Kennesaw Mountain, Allatoona, Kell and Sprayberry. You know, there’s some good teams within our region that we have to contend with.”
After finishing 28-8 last season Pope returns with hopes of making another deep playoff run, but it will do so with a new leader in the dugout.
Ellie Viland has taken over for Chris Turco, under whom she played for and was assistant for four years. Turco gave up his softball duties after being named the successor to Jeff Rowland as Pope’s baseball coach
“(The girls have) done a really, really good job,” Viland said. “From the day the season ended until now, (they have) really committed to the little things. We don’t come out here and say, ‘Oh, we are going to win state.’ We are committed to the process and committed to the little actions that we know are going to line up to help us achieve that ultimate goal, whatever that ends up being,”
The Lady Greyhounds, who won state in 2019 and have been to three straight state championships games, return an experienced senior class of Katie Ward (3B), Cara Levy (OF/1B), Peyton McCormack (2B), Kate East (RF) and Kayla Keller (OF/1B).
“We’ve been telling them they’ve been on the biggest stage compared to anyone in this state,” Viland said. “Playing in three straight state championship games, a lot of people in the state have not been in those pressure situations as much as them, so we are really relying on that experience to teach the younger group how to kind of play through those tough times.”
Pope has holes to fill at shortstop and outfield after graduating Abby Rocco and Kaitlyn Wells, but it has experience returning to the field in sophomores Kailey Martin (1B/3B) and Kendall Frost (P), as well as juniors Natalie Klingler (C) and Emily Ricci (C/Utility).
The return to a greater sense of normalcy after some players attended school virtually last fall will also be a challenge the Lady Greyhounds will have to face, Viland said.
“(They) have to realign to getting back to school — a full day of school, from 8-3:30 — and then coming out and practicing or playing a game,” Viland said. “Doing that five days a week, for our freshmen and sophomores, that’s a brand new situation for them.”
Within Region 7A Private, Mount Paran will try to continue on with its success this season after finishing 27-4 overall and winning the program’s first state title in 2020.
The Lady Eagles lost one player due to graduation — Havalynn Abernathy — and are returning much of the same roster, including seniors Sara Hambrick (1B), Charlotte Smith (INF), juniors Malayna Tamborra (P/INF), Mallory Westbrook (OF), Alaina Gatch (INF) and sophomore Marion Collins (INF).
Two newcomers — freshman pitchers Shayna Suttles and Katie Cunane — will join the team this season.
Coach Greg Giles, entering his second season, said the expectations are high, but the coaching staff minimizes discussions about winning state again, and instead encourages the girls to live in the moment.
“Our expectations, I will not lie, are high,” Giles said. “However, everything has to fall in line to win a state championship.
“We were happy to win last year, but everybody now lives in the moment.”
The biggest challenge Mount Paran will face, Giles said, is dealing with the pressure of being on top, and staying on top.
“What happens is that you strive to repeat,” he said, “and it’s very difficult because everybody now wants to beat you.”
The Lady Eagles will also face challenges of remaining injury-free throughout the season. Still, Giles said he is expecting this season to be a good one.
“We’re very excited about our year,” he said, “simply because we return some great players and two wonderful newcomers have come on the team.”