By Chris Parker
Willard softball finished 19-12 two seasons ago, but key graduation losses from that team sent the Lady Tigers into rebuilding mode. They would finish 9-20 in the 2017 season.
“Last year was be far one of the most challenging of my career, but when you’ve been doing this long enough, you are going to have those kind of years,” ninth-year head coach AshLeigh Williams said. “What ends up happening is you learn more about yourself as a coach and the team/program. When you’re in the thick of it, it’s really hard to stay positive and focus on the end goal. But now that we’ve made it through, I can honestly say that it made me a better coach and brought our players closer together. I’m excited to see how we respond this coming season. We have a lot of returning starters, we’re healthier, and we should have some impactful first-time varsity players. Regardless of what happens, I’m extremely proud of all the work these girls have put in and I couldn’t ask for a better group of girls.”
Six starters return from that team led by senior Savannah Yeargan. Yeargan was a first-team all-conference selection last year as a second baseman, but will transition to the outfield this year. She hit .474 last season with 15 RBI and 19 runs scored.
Cheyenne Terry is a two-year starter who will see most of her time in the circle as a pitcher. She threw in 14 games last year and posted a 4-3 record with a 4.41 ERA and 40 strikeouts in 52 1/3 innings. Sydney Fletcher is a freshman newcomer that will also see some time in the circle.
Junior shortstop Taylor Bagley is fully healthy for the first time since her freshman season and is expected to be one of the team’s strongest hitters from the left side of the plate. She led the team with 17 RBI last season.
Fellow junior Baylee Gastineau will be a utility player who will see time at catcher and third base among other positions. Sophomore Hailey Cones and freshman Ryley Ritchey could also see time catching.
Sydney Schader is the mainstay in the Willard outfield in left. She is entering her third season starting coming off a junior season where she hit .286 with 11 RBI. Yeargen along with seniors Mikayla Schafer and Cheyenne Terry will also see outfield time. Junior Maliyah Wells and sophomore Kailie Crews round out a deep group of outfield options for Williams.
Sara Morris will start at second base in her junior season. Senior Micheala Ewing is a two-year starter at first base. Ewing tied for second on the team with 15 RBI last season to go with her .349 batting average.
The experience and depth returning for the Lady Tigers has Williams looking for a strong, bounce-back season.
“We would obviously like to bounce back from last season. Overall, we want to play better softball by focusing on the fundamentals. We want to win more of the one and two-run games that we lost last year. We want to win more than one conference game and at least jump back up to the middle of the pack. We always have the goal of winning districts. These girls have never experienced a district championship and I would love nothing more than to send these seniors off with one,” Williams said.
Willard will travel to Monett on Aug. 17 for a jamboree with the host Lady Cubs, Seneca and Webb City. The Lady Tigers will open the season on Aug. 24 at Bolivar.