(Franklin) — The Heard High Lady Braves softball team faces high expectations once again as they prepare for the start of the 2014 season in a couple of weeks.
The squad is aiming for a third consecutive trip to the GHSA Class AA State Tournament in Columbus and hopes to finally earn state title rings after coming so close the last two years.
The Lady Braves finished in third place in the state last year, dropping closely played, low-scoring tilts to the eventual State Champs Calhoun and the state runner-ups Harlem.
In 2012, the third place finish came in heartbreaking fashion on a walk-off homer by the Wesleyan Wolves after the Lady Braves had taken a late lead on back-to-back homers by jasmine Cook and Cali Harrod.
New classification changes taking effect this fall may also alter the course of several teams in Columbus this year, as AA state champion Calhoun moves on to Class AAA.
Another perennial powerhouse, Dade County, will be dealing with the loss of a large senior class leaving Class AA wide open.
Coach Matt Hornsby is already looking closely at teams around the state and noted that the Class A Public School State Champions Gordon Lee may have an immediate impact as they arrive in Class AA.
The Lady Braves will kick off this year’s campaign with a special scrimmage game versus Alexander at the University of West Georgia on August 7th, part of a large tournament being hosted by UWG.
The regular season then boosts into high gear right away as the girls take on AAAAA foe Columbus on the road.
The Lady Braves will face undoubtedly their toughest schedule in history but that is what Coach Hornsby is looking for — he wants for his girls to face the toughest competition in the state to get them prepared for the postseason.
With the only Region 5-AA match-ups on the schedule being single games versus Bremen, Bowdon, Manchester, Temple, and Chattahoochee County, Hornsby has the luxury of scheduling a full slate of state contenders from several higher classifications.
Some of these formidable non-region challenges will include defending AAA State Champion Buford, East Coweta, and Northgate. The atmosphere should definitely be electric as the Lady Braves take on the Buford Lady Wolves on September 6 at Kennesaw State University.
Hornsby has also entered his girls into three big tournaments including the Callaway Classic August 15-16, the Allatoona Tournament August 22-23, and the Carrollton Tournament September 12-13. These tournaments will offer several challenging opponents.
“We are very excited about the upcoming season, but we still have some questions to be answered at several positions,” Hornsby says. “We will have a lot of tenth graders in some key positions and sometimes at that age they tend to be shocked especially when playing the schedule we are playing this fall.”
The biggest luxury the Lady Braves’ head coach will have at his disposal this season will be the return of the “Murderer’s Row” near the top of his line-up that includes senior shortstop Cali Harrod, junior pitcher Jordan Watson, and junior catcher Anna Shelnutt.
All three players have already committed to major universities with Harrod and Shelnutt headed to Florida State and Watson bound for Michigan State.
It is hard to imagine Jordan Watson being able to top her monster seasons statistically the last two years at both the plate and of course on the mound, especially with the tougher schedule, but the pitcher seems to always improve tremendously with each season and may hold every Heard County pitching record when she graduates in 2016 along with several batting records as well.
After the graduation of catcher Jasmine Jacobs this spring, Anna Shelnutt will drop back into her natural catcher position. Shelnutt’s move to behind the plate leaves at least one major position opening at third base.
Hornsby expects either Alexis Raines, Hattie Yarbrough, or Hannah Sanders to fill the spot at the hot corner.
The loss of Shelby O’Neal to graduation also leaves a hole at second base but that spot may already be filled due to the emergence of Alyssa Cosper who has impressed everyone this summer with her play at the position.
Sophomore Hannah Stephens returns at first base after starting in her freshman season, and Sanders could see some time there as well.
The starting outfield will remain mostly intact depending on right fielder Alexis “Lucy” Raines’ involvement in the infield. Madison Whitehead and Johanna Beyer will return to their left and center field spots respectively.
Yarbrough and sophomore Sarah Schofield will back up Watson on the mound. According to Hornsby, Schofield may serve a role as a pitcher who can keep other teams off balance with a change of pace from his ace.
Hornsby is trying to keep the girls focused with a “taking care of our own business” approach to each and every game.
“Somehow we have to find a way to win when we have bad games either offense, defensively, or on the mound. On these days we still have to find a way to be one run better than the other teams on their best day,” said Hornsby.
Check HeardCitizen.com later this week for the Lady Braves complete season schedule.