By Pat Dailey (For OzarksSportsZone.com)
Since taking over as Branson’s new coach in May, Josh McKee entered the start of practices having seen pitcher Cat Ford throw only one bullpen session.
“It was about 30 pitches,” the former Hillcrest coach said. “She threw just fastballs and changeups. There’s definitely stuff there to work with.”
The fact McKee got to see Ford throw at all was encouraging. Ford, who pitched every inning of every game the past two seasons for the Lady Pirates, was relegated to hitting duties only for May and most of June due to lower back issues. Initially, doctors warned she may not be cleared to throw until mid- to late-August.
Ford’s comeback went smoothly enough that she was given the okay to start throwing again the last week of June.
Ford is at the forefront of an intriguing Branson bunch. The Lady Pirates are fresh from a 16-15 season and will sport a lineup made up entirely of juniors and seniors in the infield.
McKee is grateful for the core group he inherits.
“Walking into a program having a seasoned veteran inside the circle is a huge positive,” McKee said. “We have a strong foundation of juniors and seniors, with Cat right in the middle of them. We’re thinking we can do damage throughout the year, sneak up on people and be at the top of the conference and maybe challenge for a district championship.
“It’s a talented group. With their athletic ability and the way they carry themselves, I think we can win 20 games. We’ll need the mindset that we’re going to compete with anybody and win every time we step on the field.”
Savannah Miller, who batted .414 with 24 RBIs as a sophomore last year, appears on the verge of establishing herself among the elite players in the Central Ozark Conference. She’s making the move from right field to catcher. McKee is among many who rave about the strength of Miller’s right arm.
“I’m impressed with her behind the plate,” McKee said. “She has one of the best arms I’ve ever seen from a high school catcher. Offensively, she’ll be in the middle of our lineup doing damage.”
McKee adds he hopes Miller assumes the role of a leader for the first time.
“We hope to get her out of her shell a bit,” he said. “For us to succeed, she’s going to have to be more vocal and be a leader. Catcher is one of the most important positions on the field. You can see everything that is going on and everybody is looking at you.”
Aly Smethers, a .269 hitter last year, has endured a torn ACL and concussions and thus has strapped on catcher’s gear for the last time. She is moving to third base.
“On our first day of workouts, Ali went to second base,” McKee said. “Then, I saw her throw to first. She’s got a good arm. I said, ‘What are you doing playing second? We’re going to move you to third.’”
The left side of the infield also includes Bellanne Johnson, who transitioned well from third base to shortstop last season and hit .333 while being hit by a pitch nine times.
“I’ve been impressed with her offense and defensively she’s consistent,” McKee said. “She’s going to make the routine plays and if you make the routine plays at shortstop, you’re going to be pretty good.”
First baseman Amber Large came back last season from a torn ACL that forced her to miss of her sophomore season. After hitting .326, she’s penciled in as the team’s cleanup hitter.
The only new starter around the infield is Emily Adams. She’s been one of the team’s most pleasant surprises and will play second base.
“She’s been hitting the cover off the ball,” McKee said.
The Lady Pirates’ outfield will have a completely different look than last season, although Molly Hagston is a returning starter. She hit .300-plus as a sophomore two years ago, before opting not to play last season.
The rest of the outfield figures to be some combination of Langley Miller, Faith Fleming and LeAnn Rhodes. Miller and Rhodes are freshmen.
“The outfield is our biggest question,” McKee said.
Maddie Good, another freshmen who figured to work her bat into the lineup, was lost for the season due to a torn ACL over the summer.
McKee hopes to increase Branson’s depth in years to come in much the same manner he helped improve numbers at Hillcrest by working on youth programs. The Lady Hornets had enough players at the high school level last season to field varsity, junior varsity and freshman teams.
The prospect of doing the same for the Lady Pirates excites McKee.
“This is my dream job,” the Ozark grad and former College of the Ozarks player said. “It’s nice to be in a one-horse town. At Hillcrest, kids could jump around from school to school. The facilities Branson has to offer make it a gold mine. In years to come, I hope Branson can become a softball powerhouse.”