Softball has been one of Woodland’s most successful sports since the school opened a little more than 20 years ago. It’s saying something that the Wildcats made history last season with the program’s first-ever region championship.
Perhaps even more impressive is that the Wildcats achieved such a feat with only four seniors and two juniors among the starters. Buoyed by reigning Daily Tribune News player of the year Bella Carnes and a loaded junior class, Woodland's 2019 squad has eyes on repeating in Region 7-AAAAA and possibly advancing further in the Class 5A state playoffs, as well.
“We’ve got seven kids that have playoff experience on a team that beat Carrollton and won the region championship,” Woodland head coach Colman Roberts said. “We play a tough schedule again. It should prepare us for the end of the year, like it did last year and the year before that. It’s going to be an exciting year, I think.”
The season will start off with games on consecutive days against arguably Woodland’s two biggest challengers in the region. After heading to East Paulding on Aug. 12 to face a young but talented Raiders side, the Wildcats will host Carrollton the following day in a rematch of last year’s thrilling three-game region championship series.
Besides playing in a region with a handful of playoff-caliber teams, Woodland should face some top-level competition in Allatoona’s Buccaneer Bash and Chattanooga’s Score Invitational tournaments. The scheduling certainly paid off last year with the Wildcats overcoming a slow start to reel off wins in 23 of 26 games at one point.
One of the keys to that run, particularly in the victories over Carrollton to clinch the region title, was the improvement of Madi Bentley in the circle. With graduate Sarah Baynard among the team’s four departures, Bentley, who was 3-0 against the Trojans last season, will be even more vital to Woodland’s success in 2019.
However, the junior, who always seemed to rise to the occasion against the great teams, needs help. Roberts believes he’s found the right pieces to round out his pitching staff. At this moment, it appears as though Lainey Baker and Cassie Jones will pick up most of the slack, although senior Hope Schultz could be a factor if she recovers from injury.
“She got stronger as the year went by,” Roberts said of Bentley’s 2018 performance. “She beat Carrollton every time she pitched against them, and she looked good the other day against Pepperell. Getting her legs back [will be key], because they’re not used to practicing every day and throwing a whole game. I threw her seven innings against Pepperell, and she was getting tired. But that’s a big plus [having her returning].
“Lainey Baker looks real strong. She pitched a little varsity last year. She’s looked very good in the summer. A pleasant surprise has been Cassie Jones, who played shortstop last year on JV. She mentioned she pitched in the spring, and she looked good. She’ll be a 10th-grader, so we’ve got some good young pitchers.”
Defensively, the biggest hole Woodland has to fill is behind the plate. Skylar Chappell proved to be the heart and soul of last year’s team, leaving a void as a leader and solid backstop.
While a few different players will have to assume the former role, the latter position will likely be filled by a combination of Kendyl Hardin and Kailey Baker. Hardin played some really solid third base last year, and Baker catches Bentley during travel ball. But both should find their way into the lineup regardless.
If Hardin does remain at third, Woodland could trot out the same infield it did virtually every game last season with Morgan Bailey at first, Carnes at second and Ansley Evans at shortstop. Morgan Cooper appears to be a lock to start in center field after impressing almost every game with her athleticism.
Playing time at the corner outfield spots will be up for grabs following the departures of Jordan Duck and Caroline Higdon. Roberts said Allyssa Motes, Kailey Baker, Hannah Miller and Jones will be the main options to fill those defensive shoes.
Miller played hero in Game 3 of the region championship series with a pair of two-run doubles — the first tied the game and the second gave the Wildcats the lead for good. The now-junior spent most of her sophomore season as Woodland’s designated player and would almost certainly return to that role if beaten out for a starting nod in the outfield.
With the bulk of the team being experienced juniors and having several talented youngsters itching for a chance, the Wildcats look more than capable of overcoming the loss of the four graduates — even though all four were all-county performers.
“We lost some good ones,” Roberts said, “but we have some good young kids coming up.”
For as much success as Woodland had last season, the year still came to a heartbreaking close. Due to a tough postseason draw, the Wildcats had to face powerhouse Buford in the second round. With a trip to the double-elimination portion of the state tournament in Columbus on the line, Woodland suffered a doubleheader sweep.
“We talked about that bad taste the first time we met this spring,” Roberts said. “Day 1 of spring practice before we did anything, we talked about it. I know I have one in my mouth. I was happy where we got, but I felt like we could have went further and they do, too.”
Well, the 2019 season is quickly approaching and offers a perfect palate cleanser. If anything, though, the bigger challenge the Wildcats could face this year might be fighting complacency more than wondering what might have been.
Roberts knows it won’t be easy to match last season’s level of success, let alone exceed it. He hopes his players understand that, too.
“It’s going to be tough,” Roberts said. “I just want them to get better every day, and when we get to the region tournament, we’re ready to play and we’re at our best. We’re going to have to be.”