By Dana Harding (For OzarksSportsZone.com)
Fair Grove finished its 2018 campaign with a 15-12 record, before falling in the district title game to eventual state champion Strafford.
Lady Eagles head coach Tara Whetzell praised her team for battling through adversity and peaking at the right moment.
“Last season was an up and down learning curve for both the team and coaching staff,” Whetzell said. “We built as the season progressed and ended up playing our best softball by the end of the season. We came up short in the district title game, but the improvement shown was something to be proud of.”
Fair Grove bids farewell to three graduated seniors in Taylor Bell, Shyan Proctor and Jordan Coddington.
Coddington will continue her softball career at Fort Scott Community College.
The Lady Eagles return a quintet of key players this season, including senior third baseman Ryah Icenhower, senior pitcher/first baseman Tristin Cross, junior second baseman Leah Weaver, junior catcher Anna Johnson and junior outfielder Halli Phifer.
“This group has had to work for everything it has developed into today,” Whetzell said. “They have not been seen as all-conference or all-district players. They are players who have had to be unselfish, hard working, gritty and big-hearted athletes. Now that they are expected to fill larger roles, I hope they have learned from past athletes and worked hard enough to fill those roles.”
Fair Grove will also rely on a trio of varsity newcomers this season in sophomores Kaylan Worth, Autumn Worth and Erin Blevins.
“Our newcomers are young but know what kind of program they are stepping into,” Whetzell said. “They will have the same expectations to step on and off the field with and compete for a spot.”
In the circle, Fair Grove will turn to a relatively inexperienced duo in Cross and Kaylan Worth.
“They are young and, when I say young, I am not talking about age,” Whetzell said. “These two are not veterans of the position, which will be our biggest obstacle to overcome this season.”
While her pitching staff develops, Whetzell will rely on her offense to keep Fair Grove competitive early on in the season.
“Our lineup will have a mixture of hitters,” Whetzell said. “We have athletes who are going to hit the ball hard, hitters who are quick on the basepaths and hitters who I want putting the ball in play to move runners.”
While her team is relatively young and inexperienced, Whetzell believes it can certainly develop quickly into a squad that can surprise late in the season.
“Hard work pays off in the end and we will see how much more work and sacrifice they are willing to put in for one another,” Whetzell said. “As we get deeper into the season we would like to see our girls make plays that they might not have made at the beginning or hit pitchers that they struggled with early on. Being able to make adjustments and stay in the game mentally will be a key for us.”
The Lady Eagles are also set to launch a middle school softball program this season, helmed by head coach Samantha Orr.
Fair Grove opens its season March 15 at Sarcoxie.