The 2018 season didn’t go the way Cartersville head softball coach Shannon Suarez would have envisioned. The second half, in particular, saw the Canes struggle for confidence, leading to the team dropping eight of its final 10 games for a 9-14 final record.
Even still, there’s still a lot of positivity around the program. Cartersville only graduated two seniors, and both of them signed to play collegiately. The group that Suarez will take into Friday’s season opener against Adairsville has a healthy mix of seasoned veterans and eager up-and-comers.
“There’s a lot to be excited about with this group of girls,” Suarez said.
Despite only having three members, the senior class will be extremely important to the Canes this year. Lauren McElhaney, Cio Seigler and Hope Short will bring plenty of experience into their final seasons with the program, and they’ll be asked to help carry the team until some of the younger players learn the ropes.
“The seniors are going to really have to step up,” Suarez said. “They’ve had some great mentors. In the past couple of years, the girls we’ve graduated have done a great job, showing them how to lead on and off the field. I feel confident they are equipped to do so.”
The hope is that the group can lead Cartersville back to the Class 4A state playoffs after missing out the past two years. And while the seniors will certainly be key in helping the Canes achieve their goals, the talented freshman class might be the biggest X-factor.
“This freshman group is without a doubt the best freshman group I’ve had — this is going into my sixth season coaching here — not just athletic-wise,” Suarez said. “You’ve brought in three pitchers, outfielders and versatile players. But above all, I think their knowledge of the game sets them apart from the other groups. Lots to be excited about. I’m looking forward to seeing them get out there and compete for starting spots as freshmen.”
It’s clear Suarez likes the squad she has, but that doesn’t mean there aren’t still a few question marks. Arguably, the team’s biggest issue last season was driving in runners. On paper, that won’t get any easier with Cartersville’s top two RBI leaders having graduated.
“Losing Presly Edwards and Colbi Ballard is going to be tough,” Suarez said of the Canes’ departed graduates. “They did a great job for us over four years. Defensively, I think we’ll fill those spots. Offensively, that’s going to the key is if we can have some girls step up where they were in the middle of the order in the 3-4-5 holes on any given day.”
Short, Seigler and McElhaney will likely occupy spots in the upper half of the order along with junior Anna Kate McElhaney, who hit an even .400 in 2018. The younger McElhaney will be a key part of the Cartersville offense, but she could also be, especially in the early stages of the season, the team’s go-to pitcher.
The right-hander tossed 43 2/3 innings last year. Ballard pitched 97 frames, and Lauren McElhaney was the only other player to pitch, hurling just 6 2/3 innings. That being said, Anna Kate McElhaney will have plenty of competition for time in the circle with three incoming freshmen — Kiley Arnold, McKinley Chada and Ava Perkins.
“I think this year’s crew is a pitch-by-committee,” Suarez said. “We have four pitchers — three of them being freshman and [McElhaney] coming back. She’s the one with the most experience. Early on, I do expect to see her out there, but then on any given day, you could see any of those four faces. …
"As the season unfolds and we establish roles, I’ll be excited to see who steps up and wants that starting spot. It’s definitely going to be a fight for it.”
Elsewhere defensively, junior Mattie Johnson will be the outfield leader for the Canes after patrolling center in 2018. Emery Jenkins is the team’s lone sophomore, but she’ll be a major utility player with the ability to play in the infield or outfield.
Perhaps the most intriguing position battle is between junior first basemen Rylie Harris and Madison Lingerfelt. Regardless of who ultimately wins out in the friendly competition, the Cartersville first baseman will likely be playing alongside Mikey Lewis on the right side of the infield. An incoming freshman who transferred from Excel Christian, Lewis has been one of the most impressive players of the summer to Suarez.
“She has done an outstanding job at second base for us during the summer in scrimmages,” Suarez said. “… She’s a real aggressive player, and I love what I’m seeing out of her. She’s going to be a familiar face over there at second.”
Unfortunately for Suarez, she hasn’t gotten many opportunities to see what a full roster will look like for the Canes. With this past Monday marking the first official day of practice and Friday representing the first day games can be played, the window for full evaluation is incredibly small.
Sure, the team has been able to do things over the summer, but it’s not the same without a full complement of players.
“I feel tough, because the GHSA doesn’t give you a lot of time to officially prepare for the season,” Suarez said. “A lot of it has to come during the summer with ‘voluntary practice’ for your girls. We did the best we could. We put in work throughout June and July to best prepare ourselves for August.”