By Tony Burns
Weather permitting, El Dorado will open the softball season today at the El Dorado/Union County Recreation Complex, beginning at 4:30 p.m. against Crossett. The Lady Wildcats return five starters from last year's team, which went 16-10.
Coach Chris Ezell said he had 18 players begin workouts in October. He expects the rest of the players, who were on the basketball team, to join the squad today.
"We want to build on that 16-10 record from last year. We've got some position changes from last year. We're still evaluating that. When we get the basketball girls out here, we'll know more exactly what we have as a composite," said Ezell.
In addition to five returning starters, Ezell said four other girls return who were part-time starters. That includes the entire three-girl pitching staff of Grace Hargett, Laraan Simmons and Payton Scarlett.
"That's a big bonus for us," said Ezell. "They'll take the bulk of our varsity innings."
Hargett, a junior, is the returning ace after posting a 13-4 record a year ago.
"I think, so far, her development has been showing at practice quite a bit. We've been challenging her with some of our best batters in practice pretty regularly. She's been developing a couple new strategies when it comes to attacking the hitters. She's got a new mentality when it comes to attacking them and I think she's developed some confidence from that."
Last year's starting catcher, Marissa Rice, is now a freshman at Belhaven University. Her departure forced the Lady Wildcats to shuffle spots. Starting shortstop Allyson Silmon has been moved to the catcher's position this season.
"That will be the biggest position change. She's doing a great job, getting better every day at it. She looked really good at the benefit game the other night," said Ezell, who is still looking to see who will take over the shortstop spot.
"Right now we've got two seniors that are battling it out, right now. We've got Sydni Crisalli and Jae Peterson. We're hoping one of those kind of emerges into where they're comfortable knowing all the responsibilities there. It's a position change for both of them."
Around the infield, the coach said Simmons will move to third with Scarlett at second and Leah Jones at first base.
In the outfield will be Sydney Sprawls in left, Ava Dunn in center and Taylor Mayo in right. The addition of basketball players - Grace Murry, Julianne Spencer and Amaya Evans - will impact the outfield positions.
Offensively, the Lady Wildcats did not rely on the long ball last year. Ezell believes the bats will have enough pop, however, to complement aggressive base running.
"Hopefully, we get a good balance. I'm always the type that, if the situation calls for the small ball, I'm confident in my hitters' ability to get bunts down and move runners over and put them in scoring position and execute plays to give us a chance," he said.
"We had 81 steals last year. I really think that's something we definitely need to use to our advantage is our team speed, overall. We've got a lot of that in positions we're filling in with newcomers that will add even more speed. That's a big positive for us. In the small-ball game or when you're trying to move runners over, it's definitely an advantage when you have that kind of speed."
Simmons could be the lead-off hitter and table setter in the lineup.
"Hopefully, she grows into that. I feel like she's got the versatility. I like that lefthanded hitter to start it off. She's capable of dropping down a bunt or hitting away," said Ezell. "We're going to be counting heavily on Allyson Silmon. She's a returning all-conference player as a sophomore. She's been really strong this fall and in the preseason."
With solid pitching and defense, timely hitting and opportunistic base running, El Dorado enjoyed one of its better seasons a year ago. The Lady Wildcats will look to use those same attributes to have another successful campaign.
"The best part about our team is their athleticism and them being flexible and able to play multiple positions. So far, that's been a big positive for us," said Ezell.
"I just hope the girls have the mentality every day to come out and play as hard as they can. Winning will take care of itself if we show up to the field ready to go each time, whether it's practice or the games. Just go our and compete each pitch, each play. I think that's going to be our mantra for the year. Go as hard as you can and play together. We'll see how that works for us."