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Fair Play pitcher Chyler Welch delivers a strike during a 2018 Lady Hornets jamboree at Hermitage. 

Polk County softball teams are breaking out the bats and gloves to hit the field in preparation for the 2019 fall season. 

Halfway’s Lady Cardinals look to build on a strong foundation of eight returning starters, while Fair Play seeks to better a 9-12 record and capitalize on its strong hitters. 

Marion C. Early has a tradition of excellence to uphold following a district championship and trip to sectionals, and Humansville will seek to rebuild and focus on improvements after losing six starters to graduation.

Halfway

Halfway softball coach Eric Ingram enters his third year leading the Lady Cardinals after a 15-7 2018 campaign.

Two years ago, Halfway won a district title and came within one game of the state final four. The team will need to improve in all aspects of the game and a focus on consistency to make a return to that level of playing, Ingram said.

“After finishing 15-7 last year with a young team, we feel confident bringing back eight starters,” he said. “Last year, we’d pitch well but didn't hit that game, or hit well but made too many errors. We need to improve all areas but mainly need to be more consistent as a team.”

The team is without former standout Kamryn Voris, an all-region center fielder and its leadoff batter. 

Returning starters include senior third baseman Lindsay Simpson, juniors Hannah Farmer at shortstop, Madison Higginbotham at second base and Kendall Morris at first base. Simpson, Farmer and Morris are leading candidates to return to those spots, but Ingram said Higginbotham looks to head to the outfield, where she’s traditionally played. 

Returner Maddie Payne locked down as catcher last year, while last year’s corner outfielders senior Mattie Ackels and junior Hannah Wolford are leading candidates to return to their spots. 

“The biggest (strength) is experience,” Ingram said. “Most of these girls are two- or- three-year starters. They have played the games and been through the grind of a season.”

Newcomers include freshmen Annabelle Ingram, Jaka Sharp, Sammi Gallivan, Hallie Rovenstine and Klarissa McCellend, along with sophomores Elavia Sharp and Kamryn Sibley. 

“We have a crop of upperclassmen and underclassmen this year,” he said. “They have spent the summer playing together and getting comfortable with each other. We will have multiple options and be able to play multiple players and that depth will help us.”

Halfway opens its season at the Buffalo Lady Bison Invitational tournament in Buffalo Friday through Saturday, Aug. 30-31. 

Fair Play

The Lady Hornets saw struggles but also success last year, finishing with a 9-12 season in former assistant coach Alicia Mercer’s first year leading the team. 

“I think that we played hard and had a good year,” she said. “We struggled with getting over the hump from having a rough inning or two. We hit the ball really well.”

Last year saw pitcher Chyler Welch earn all-conference and all-district honors, while first baseman Adrienne Brown claimed all-conference honors and center fielder Lexie Simpson nabbed a spot on an all-district team. Brown, along with second baseman Christina Bayer, left fielder Hayley Shuler and shortstop Martha Khadyrke, have graduated. 

Welch and Simpson, along with third baseman Emily McDougal and catcher Brayden Thomas make a return for the squad, which spent the last few months focusing on skills and hitting while playing in the Polk County League summer league.

Welch, Mercer said, “has the strength of knowing the game and being able to make things happen.”

“She is tough and can throw the ball,” she said. “She kept us in a lot of our games through her pitching or hitting, most times both.”

McDougal is constantly improving, Mercer said, while Simpson is a tough player who can read the ball and make hard catches. Thomas continues to grow in skill in confidence, she said. 

Meghan Hoxsie joins the team as a promising freshman who can pitch, Mercer said. 

The team will continue to work on its mental and physical toughness, she said. Fair Play starts the year against Macks Creek at 5 p.m. Monday, Sept. 3, in Macks Creek. The team has a jamboree in Hermitage Thursday, Aug. 29.

Marion C. Early

Marion C. Early coach Mike McHolland sees a tradition of excellence in Lady Panther softball. McHolland, who is in his 33rd year in education and 25th at MCE, has led the softball team for 11 years to a 240-100 overall record. 

The Lady Panthers went 17-2 last year, including a 5-0 conference run and a district championship. 

Following a season of successes, McHolland said the team has a straightforward plan.

Build on our team success from last year and get better each day as a team throughout the season,” he said. 

Six returning starters should put them onto the right track early. McHolland identified a group of key returners, including senior second baseman/catcher Eliza Francka and junior third baseman Nettie Wiggins. A group of sophomores, including pitcher Hannah Brisley, first baseman Becca Presley, centerfielder Riley Simmons and outfielder Olivia Blehm, also saw varsity time last year. 

Wiggins earned all-conference and all-district honors, while Brisley netted all-conference, all-district and all-state nods. Presley received all-conference recognition. 

Francka and Wiggins will slot in as team leaders, McHolland said. Francka heads back to second base after playing catcher last year. She has the potential to be an offensive threat, the coach said, while Wiggins will need to focus on consistency to have another successful year. 

Presley was the team’s most improved player last year, McHolland said. 

“We’re expecting another great year from her with the experience she got last year as a freshman,” he said. 

Despite losing graduating seniors Katie Collins, Erica Brisley and Bailey Simmons, McHolland said the team has a “good nucleus of young players returning, pitching and solid hitters at the top of the order.”

Collins, who earned all-state, all-conference, all-district and all-region honors, will attend Southwest Baptist University to continue her softball career. Brisley heads to Evangel University to play in college after earning all-conference, all-district and all-region nods. 

Simmons received all-conference, all-district and all-region awards. 

Newcomers include junior Kora Hadley, sophomores Libby Painter, Karley Painter and Gracie Spencer, and freshmen Lauren Taylor, Emilie English, Paige Mawhiney, Halle Burrow and Kirsten McGinnis. 

“Our team defense and our younger players will need to be more consistent for us to have another great year,” McHolland said. 

The Lady Panthers first play at home Friday through Saturday, Aug. 30-31.

Humansville 

Humansville graduated six seniors and six starters from last year’s squad — a scenario that would leave some coaches intimidated. Lady Tiger softball coach Miranda Cheney looks at it as a challenge and a chance to help the team’s drive.

“We know we have a lot of spots to fill and players need to step up,” she said. “Everyone, freshmen to seniors will be competing for these spots, which has motivated us to work hard over the summer knowing all positions are available for whoever wants to work the hardest.”

That squad consists of a handful of upperclassmen, along with six freshmen, she said. The team will be brand new in all positions, excluding senior catcher Jahnna Essex, who returns with more confidence and knowledge of the game, Cheney said. 

Senior Lacey Swearingen will take the pitching mound for the Lady Tigers after the team graduated its entire pitching staff last year. Swearingen previously played at first base. 

“Lacey stepped up and has been working hard on improving her skills,” Cheney said. 

Freshman Maliah Kenney will also pitch, but a plethora of newcomers may also see time in the circle, the coach said. 

Cheney also identified seniors Alex Hopkins, Katelyn Hoskins and Sophie Gann as key members of the fall 2019 team, along with juniors Jade Parker, Mikayla Sponder and freshmen Kayci Payne, Kenney, Catelyn Anderson, Mia Pratt and Bailey Willard.

Hopkins has been a utility player with a strong offensive game, the coach said. Hoskins took last year off but has made huge improvements in her game, she added. 

“We are glad to have her back in the lineup,” she said. “We hope to have her as our starting third baseman.”

After performing well as a utility player, Gann will be looked at to start infield and outfield, depending on the game, Cheney said. Parker is a newcomer to high school softball but has the skills to play multiple positions, Cheney said. 

“She will make an immediate impact with her abilities and want to get better,” she said.

Sponder started multiple games in the outfield and will likely head back into the grass, Cheney said. 

As freshmen, Payne, Kenney, Anderson, Pratt and Willard each bring a strong work ethic and a promising set of skills, Cheney said. 

The team’s early season is going to be a learning experience, Cheney said. 

“We will be young and new, we might take some time in the beginning of the season to get comfortable but hope to be competing after we settle into spots,” she said. 

The Lady Tigers first face Dadeville at 5 p.m. Monday, Sept. 3 in Dadeville. 

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