Adairsville softball coach Amanda Nelson is always excited to begin another season. She’s loves seeing her players get out on the diamond and step up to the challenge of facing good competition.
But there’s one thing, especially this season, that she’s looking forward to even more.
“I’m excited about the culture of our program that we’ve really been developing,” Nelson said. “Just creating a positive culture within our program, where our student-athletes are able to grow and thrive as a person and a player. … I’m excited to see that culture develop as much as I am excited to see our girls play softball. That’s a key piece for us this season.”
Nelson will officially start her third season in charge of the Tigers, when they travel down Joe Frank Harris Parkway to face Bartow County foe Cartersville in the season opener at 5 p.m. Friday. This has the chance to be an extremely pivotal year for the direction of the Adairsville program.
In her first campaign, Nelson led the Tigers to a 10-10 record and a county championship. Last year, Adairsville finished 8-20 and 5-11 in Region 6-AAA. However, the team, which graduated five seniors, suffered several narrow defeats — including nine by two or fewer runs — and easily could have finished .500 or better.
The hope is those tight ballgames have given the returning players the experience needed to flip the script this year. With only one senior on the squad, the Tigers have the opportunity to establish an identity that could truly move the program forward.
Luckily for Nelson, the lone 12th-grader on her side, Alexa Varner, epitomizes what she looks for in her players.
“Alexa is the definition of the core values we have defined for our team,” Nelson said. “She’s everything we are expecting from each individual player. We could not have a better senior to lead this group of girls. She’s a quiet leader. She leads by example, but she’s a fabulous senior leader for us.”
Below Varner, who starred at shortstop last year, there’s a talented crop of juniors. That class includes Adairsville’s top two pitchers in Victoria O’Neal and Taylor Rhoades. Both pitchers logged innings as freshmen before combining to throw nearly every pitch in 2018.
Unlike a lot of standout pitchers, O’Neal and Rhoades aren’t really expected to throw seven innings every outing. Nelson said the pair are accepting of the roles, while adding that the dynamic brings out healthy competition between the two.
“Having two pitchers with that much varsity experience, going into just their junior years is exciting as a coach,” Nelson said. “It’s exciting for our team that they know how to handle themselves in the circle. We know they’re going to be great at that.
“They also complement each other well. They throw different speeds; they throw different pitches. Depending on what we’re trying to accomplish each game, we can kind of determine who will be the starter and who will come in in relief and come up with a game plan we think is best suitable for each game.”
While Nelson said the varsity roster has yet to be finalized, it will certainly boast a large number of young players. Don’t be fooled, though, the freshmen and sophomores Adairsville will suit up won’t just be there to give the team depth in case of emergency.
In fact, it could be argued that those individuals are the most important in terms of realizing Nelson’s vision for the program.
“It’s a great group of girls who have a foundation of softball fundamentals and knowledge of the game,” Nelson said of the 2022 and 2023 classes. “We have asked them to step up all summer, because they are going to have to fill some of those shoes on the varsity roster.
“We have had girls answer that. They get out there, and they’re grinding. They have the grit and determination to fight for those starting positions on varsity that they know are available. It’s really fun to see the girls aren’t intimidated coming into the program. … They’re really out there working hard for the program, and their goal is to play varsity softball.”
A lot of those players will be given chances to contribute in the early stages of the campaign. The region changed its scheduling this year, having teams play each other once instead of twice in the regular season.
Nelson, for one, is very much in favor of the change.
“It gives us time to have some preliminary games, work out some kinks and just get some games as a team under our belts before we head into region play,” she said.
Ahead of the official first day of practice this past Monday, Nelson said she hadn’t been able to have a full team together for any of her squad’s preseason contests. The result will mean there’s definitely some trial and error with the fielding lineup and the batting order coming up over the next few weeks.
While the goal is to eventually nail down some specific positions for the purpose of cohesion, Nelson believes her players have successfully managed to prepare themselves for the start of the season.
“We spent a lot of time developing defensively this summer,” Nelson said. “We’ve been working players at multiple positions to see how our players' skillsets will develop and how they will fit together best. We had some pretty good turnover last year, graduating five. A lot of shoes to fill and a lot of question marks going into the summer about those skillsets and how each player would develop and where they would fit.
“I think we got a lot of questions answered in June and July. Our girls have worked hard, and it’s good to see our defense setting up, starting to jive and working together.”