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Wildcats to lean heavily on youth, speed this fall

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Life has been good for Logan-Rogersville softball the past six seasons. Four of them have resulted in 18 wins, and 2015-16 saw the program notch 22 and reach the Class 3 state quarterfinals.

Though there’s not a ton of girls to replace from graduation, several were highly important pieces, including first-team All-Region infielder Taylor Williams (State Fair CC), and Julia Marshall, one of two primary pitchers used. Luckily for Wildcats coach Denny McHenry, he’s got a busload of talented underclassmen to lean on.

With just four seniors and one junior on this year’s team, a combined 18 freshman and sophomores will make up a majority of the bunch, one that could give McHenry what he imagines will be the speediest he’s had as he enters his 12th season as head coach.

“Our young girls, especially our freshmen, they’re fast and they can run,” McHenry said. “We could have a senior get a base hit in the first inning and if we don’t have any outs, have one of them run for her and put the senior back in later. We’ve done a lot of bunt game before and haven’t been overly fast, but with our middle schoolers last year, we lived on stealing bases and bunting. [Some of that is because] their swings were works in progress, but they’ve gotten a lot better.”

On the mound, Paige Leithead is one of the seniors who returns, the “down” pitcher that complimented a contrasting style to Marshall last fall. The hope is that injuries won’t derail some of the talented youth that should provide a strong presence on the mound when she’s not on the hill. Freshman Halle Miles has been dealing with a shoulder injury but is expected to pick up innings. Jenna McKenzie missed a good chunk of last season when a line drive back to the mound in a game against Nevada was initially thought to have taken her finger nail off, but instead turned out to be bone sticking out. She returns as a sophomore, and a control-type pitcher who McHenry says threw well over the summer.

Count Leithead as one who is pleased to have some help from several younger arms.

“I was super excited when I heard there were good upcoming pitchers,” Leithead said. “I love pitching and it’s my life, but it takes some pressure off me [laughs]. Obviously with the young girls coming up and the talent they bring, I think we’ll be really strong.”

When McHenry says his group will be as good as its seniors, Shelby Ince is expected to be another at the core of it. An All-State catcher her sophomore year, McHenry optimized the team in 2018 by moving her to third base, but regardless of position, Ince will be one of the team’s best bats at the top of the order. Taking her place behind the backstop is returning sophomore catcher Jenna Lane.

Though Williams, who was as defensively solid as they come, is gone, there’s still a stable presence in the middle infield back with senior Angie Coambes, who has started since she was a freshman. McHenry envisions either Miles or Leithead, whoever isn’t pitching at the time, to eat up a good chunk of innings at first.

Lindsay Schatzer is another who graduated, and could be replaced in left field by Ali Icenhower. Going around the rest of the outfield, Meghan Hager started last season as a freshman and will hold down that spot again in center, while right field might be a by-committee situation.

In a perfect world, McHenry would have his players distributed with five in each class to balance out the experience, but he’s high on the young players, who will make the Wildcats arguably as deep as they’ve ever been.

“We could possibly start five sophomores, two freshman, two seniors and a junior,” McHenry said. “We did it all summer and they were good. Is there a learning curve involved? Absolutely. And they’ll continue to make mistakes, but that’s the only way you’re going to get any better.”

With a culture of winning established in the last handful of years, players are anxious to wash away the disappointment of an 8-4 loss in the Wildcats' first game of districts that came at home to Hillcrest, an opponent L-R had beaten 8-3 earlier in its campaign.

“It was super disappointing because we had such high expectations and a good group of girls, and all those seniors were really great to us,” Leithead said. “We thought and expected to go far and wanted so badly to win, but we didn’t play to the best of our ability and that stung a little. This year, we’re definitely on the prowl to get back.”

The rally to get there begins with the 16-team Buffalo Lady Bison Invitational Tournament on Aug. 30. The Wildcats will host a section that includes games against Mansfield on Iberia on Friday, then all teams from the pools will convene in Buffalo the following day to determine a winner.

When Leithead and Ince were asked for a game on the schedule to circle, a Sept. 12 trip to Reeds Spring was the unanimous choice. L-R split its meetings with the Lady Wolves last year.

“It’s always a great time playing against them,” Ince said. “If it’s at our place, we always get super-pumped, but next year it’s at their place and we’re going to have to bring it.”

Bryan can be followed on Twitter @BryanEversonMF.

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