The youth movement within the Cass softball program is there for all to see. It was on display throughout the 2018 season, and as one would expect, there were some growing pains.
It’s the double-edged sword of having young players. There’s plenty of potential, but building and maintaining confidence can sometimes be hard. Following a 4-23 campaign in 2018, the Colonels will look to take the next step this season.
For coach Taylor Weeks, that means Cass will be able to improve upon its 4-12 record in Region 7-AAAAA and an 0-2 showing in the region tournament. The second-year coach, who splits duties with Greg Hight, believes that’s an attainable goal for this group, and the team's potential has her looking forward to getting the year underway.
“I’m always excited for the start of the season,” Weeks said. “I can’t wait. We have a good group, and we’ll be able to compete.”
Cass will be tested straight away in its regular-season schedule, opening with a Region 7-AAAAA clash against Villa Rica Aug. 13 at home. The Wildcats, who reached the Elite Eight in 2018, won both meetings last year by narrow margins (11-9 and 5-4), showing just how close the Colonels were, even then, to those in the upper half of the standings.
In fact, nine of the team’s dozen region defeats were by five or fewer runs. Oftentimes, one inning proved to be the difference. As the season progressed, Cass made noticeable strides in all phases of the game.
The Colonels lost three seniors from last year’s squad and only have a pair of 12th-graders this time around. Even with a majority of the team being underclassmen, Weeks said her two seniors are still taking on important leadership roles.
“Kaila [Carson] and Madison [Sheppard] always lead by example,” Weeks said. “They’re kind of quiet leaders, but they always do the right thing. I think the younger girls see that and kind of follow.”
All three of the Colonels’ primary pitchers from the 2018 team will be returning this year. Weeks said sophomore Rachael Lee will likely be unavailable to start the season due to an injury suffered while with her travel ball team, meaning sophomore Kylee Hembree and junior Macenzie Dougharty will likely see the majority of the time in the circle.
Overall, the Colonels will return at least a dozen players who started at some point last year. Three of those players — Rachael Lee, Eryn Lee and Kelly Young — earned spots on the Daily Tribune News all-county team. Most of the returners and possibly some of the incoming freshmen will get chances early in the season to earn a starting job.
At the very least, Weeks has shown that if something isn’t working — be it defensive struggles or offensive lulls — she’s not afraid to shake things up.
“I think it will change throughout the year,” Weeks said of the Colonels lineup. “When certain people are hot, their spot in the lineup will move. I don’t think we’ll have a set order that we’ll go in. Maybe for a few games in a row, but if something isn’t working, we’ll change it up.”
She added, “It’s huge just having those girls competing against one another. Just having multiple girls at each position to push each other and make each other better is huge. We have that this year, especially with the younger girls coming up. We have a great group of older girls, but the numbers we have with the younger class really gets them to push the older girls and makes everybody better.”
Part of the reason for the influx of talent seems to be an increase in the number of athletes who are spending their summers playing softball. Weeks feels that it helps her team in several areas, most notably hitting.
“A majority of the team did [play travel ball],” Weeks said. “That will make a huge difference in them being prepared for this season. They’ve been seeing live pitching all summer, and it just carries right over into school. There’s not much of a break there.
“I think we’ll look really good. We looked really good offensively at our games last week, so I’m just hoping that continues to grow. We’ll figure out the lineup and who works best where.”
While travel ball does giveth, it also does taketh away — literally. With obligations to other teams, those Cass players didn’t have many chances to work directly with the Colonels during the summer.
Luckily for Weeks and Co., there’s still plenty of time until the meaningful games start to get things squared away.
“We’ve had a lot of girls here this summer. But it’s hard to get everybody here at the same time, because most of our team plays travel ball,” Weeks said. “We played a tournament last week and went 1-1. There’s a lot of things we can improve on, but we have the talent to be able to compete in our region.”