The Pilot Grove Lady Tigers softball team left the 2016 season somewhat satisfied after finishing 14-7 overall and tied for first in the CAC along with New Franklin and Cairo.
But after missing out on a district title last year, the Lady Tigers would like nothing more than to add that piece of the hardware to their trophy case in 2017.
With 13 players suited out for the upcoming season, Pilot Grove just might have the players to get the job done this season with six returning starters and seven returning letterwinners.
Pilot Grove coach Neal Bailey said this is probably his best overall team since he took over the program four years ago.
“We are a lot faster than we were last year,” Bailey said. “Not just talent-wise but the way the girls kind of work together and support each other as a whole unit. We’ll see what happens. We are not that deep with only 13 girls out and we have several of the girls are new but if everybody stays healthy I think we have a chance to have a good season.”
Bailey also sees the Lady Tigers being in the mix somewhere in the CAC. He said Sturgeon is always in the mix with Cairo and you can’t rule New Franklin out.
“They will have five good solid hitters and they will put the ball in play,” Bailey said. “We will also put the ball in play so it’s going to be one of those deals where they are going to put the ball in play and we will put the ball in play so you can’t rule New Franklin out. They will be up there even though maybe their pitching is not as strong as what it has been in the past. Madison will have a good solid pitcher who mixed it up even though they lost quite a few players. There are just too many variables to really predict anything but looking at it those are going to be the teams that are going to be at the top I would think for sure.”
With so much returning from last year, Bailey said the thing that he has noticed with his players this fall is that they are faster.
“I think the girls are also working much better as a whole unit, which is obviously going to contribute to what I think is success,” Bailey said. “Everybody is also wanting to work and everybody is wanting to work hard. I think we have some potential to do some pretty good things this year and they are all willing to step in and do whatever it takes to do it.”
Of course with only 13 players on the team, Bailey said there will be some girls that are going to be put in positions that they have never played before so right not it’s just going to take some time to get them experience.
As for the goals of the team this season, Bailey said the girls all set goals to get better at what they are doing whether it’s hitting or whether it’s playing shortstop or first base. Their goals are to get better at their positions. It’s kind of like their craft within this game. We have all kind of decided that if we take care of those things and get better every single day the other things will take care of themselves.
“Everybody has goals of obviously winning but our goals are set to where we are working and getting better every single day, and my personal goal is the same as always to teach the kids the game of softball and get them to play and enjoy the game.”
Of course it helps to enjoy the game when you have two of the best pitchers in the conference in the circle with juniors Samarah Bailey and Melanie Wolfe. While both earned all-conference, all-district honors last fall, Bailey also finished 8-4 in the circle with an ERA of 1.71 with 104 strikeouts in 65 2/3 innings. As for Wolfe, the right-handed hurler sported a record of 6-3 with an ERA of 2.23 with 61 strikeouts in 59 2/3 innings.
While both are two year starters, Bailey said they both really have a different rhythm to the game. “For the most part they throw mostly the same pitchers but they have a couple of different pitches,” Bailey said. “They both mix it up pretty well, so I look for them to be up there with the other top pitchers in the conference.”
As for the infield, Bailey said the catcher position is one he doesn’t know for sure. He said what he may do is flip the pitcher and catcher with Mel and Sam. “When one is not pitching one is catching unless we play a tournament or something where games are back to back. We may move Emily Schupp to catcher. She can move from shortstop to catch some. We will lose an infielder for that because both Sam and Mel would normally play third and they are both solid there.”
Bailey and Wolfe are also solid at plate. Bailey returns after hitting .435 last fall with 27 hits in 73 at bats while Wolfe led the team with a .500 clip with 34 hits in 73 at bats with a team high of 24 RBIs.
Sophomore Natalie Rentel will also return at first base for the Lady Tigers after hitting .259 last fall with 15 hits in 68 at-bats. As for the second base position, Bailey said he has a couple of candidates in sophomore Hailey Lawrence and freshman Abby Schupp. He said there is no frontrunner yet.
“We will give them all a shot and see who wants to take it and whoever is most suited for it they will be the one there,” Bailey said. “As for Natalie at first, she is getting better and working hard. She has really focused on improving her defense even though I thought she played pretty well last year as a freshman.”
On the left side of the infield, junior Emily Schupp will return at shortstop after hitting .420 with 29 hits in 79 at-bats with a team-leading 30 runs scored and nine walks.
Bailey said Schupp is solid at shortstop. “She is getting better and her range has really improved from last year,” Bailey said.
Senior Sasha Moore will start at third base after sitting out last year. “Sasha is doing really well and picking it up at third,” Bailey said. “She is the type of player that reacts and throws the ball and that’s what we need at third. By the time we get things settled in and everybody knows their responsibilities and roles I am confident we will have a pretty good infield.”
Bailey also has confidence in his outfield, which he said all starts in center field with senior Reagan Walker. While starting the last-three years at catcher, Bailey said Walker pretty much owns the outfield.
“Reagan just runs everything down,” Bailey said. “She reads the ball so well so I am not worried about anything from right center to left center. She will get to it because she is so fast.”
Walker also hits the ball pretty well after batting .353 last year with 24 hits in 76 at-bats with 16 RBIs and 27 runs scored.
At left and right field, Bailey will look to senior Kaitlen Weekley in left and probably sophomore Reagan McFatrich in right. “It all depends on who plays second but it will probably be Reagan in right because she has a pretty strong arm and she is fast. As for Kaitlen in left, this is her first year of playing softball but she is pretty athletic and can track down balls and catch it. Again, I feel pretty good about the outfield with Reagan Walker in center.”
Pilot Grove
Softball Schedule
8-19-Lady Pirate Classic, TBA
8-21-at Harrisburg, 5 p.m.
8-24-SALISBURY, 5 p.m.
8-25-STURGEON, 5 p.m.
8-31-ROCK BRIDGE, 5 p.m.
9-5-JAMESTOWN, 5 p.m.
9-7-PRAIRIE HOME, 5 p.m.
9-9-Cairo Tournament, TBA
9-11-at California, 5 p.m.
9-14-at Glasgow, 5 p.m.
9-15-at Cairo, 5 p.m.
9-19-at Father Tolton, 5 p.m.
9-22-at New Franklin, 5 p.m.
9-23-Versailles Tourn., TBA
9-26-LEETON, 5 p.m.
9-29-MADISON, 5 p.m.
10-2-SLATER, 5 p.m.
10-4-Districts, TBA
10-11-Sectionals, TBA
10-14-Quarterfinals, TBA
10-20-21-State Tourn., TBA
Note: Home games in caps.