By Dana Harding (For OzarksSportsZone.com)
It’s a safe bet Walnut Grove will enter the 2019 campaign with a chip on its shoulder.
The Lady Tigers posted a 17-11 record last season, falling to Marion C. Early in the district title game.
While pleased with his team’s win total, head coach Jeff Dishman noted the missed opportunities that ended the season.
“17 wins with the schedule we play is an extremely good season most of the time,” Dishman said. “We fell short in the district title game, a game we were up 5-3 with two outs in the 7th.”
Fortunately for Walnut Grove, a new season awaits and most of its lineup returns intact.
A pair of seniors move on due to graduation in Grace McPhail (.459 BA, 24 SB) and Myranda McVay.
McPhail departs the Walnut Grove program as both its single-season and career stolen base leader, while McVay thrived in the circle after missing her junior season due to illness.
With only two roster spots opening up, the Lady Tigers return a solid core led by a pair of junior all-state selections in Faith Gilkey (.483 BA, 8 HR, 30 RBI) and MaKayla McVay (.585 BA, 5 HR, 42 RBI).
“Faith just plays,” Dishman said. “She plays hard every day, every practice and hates to lose. She hits for power and can really field it. MaKayla has the opportunity to really have a breakout year this fall, as she hits for power and average. She’s also one of our best baserunners.”
Other returnees include senior Cortney Stevens (.393 BA, 23 RBI) and juniors Lauren Johnson (.496 BA), Morgan Hailey (.425 BA, 16 SB), Maddy Hughes and April Countryman.
Sophomores Anna Bourke and Skyler Boyd return, as well, with incoming freshman Jaedyn Johnson poised to battle for a position and playing time on the varsity roster.
Dishman believes his team’s experience and growth through adversity will pay dividends this season.
“We’re a year older, a year more mature and found out last year in softball that we can’t just show up and win games,” Dishman said. “In those bigger games, we need to find a way to play calm, or just green-light softball (just go play, play loose, who cares).”
In the circle, MaKayla McVay will again assume the primary role and will be spelled by Gilkey when the need arises.
“MaKayla returns to pitch after being very good last fall,” Dishman said. “She needs to get stronger in her lower half and throw strikes more consistently. Faith will have to help us some this fall, but we’re not sure yet how much or how often.”
One key area Dishman will focus on is limiting the number of free bases given up this season.
“We need to overcome walks,” Dishman said. “Last year, as a pitching staff, we walked way too many batters, putting our defense on the wall too many times.”
At the plate, Walnut Grove features dangerous hitters all through its lineup and can move runners on the ground or over the fence.
“We want to hit for power, but know situations call for small ball some too,” Dishman said. “We will be very quick so we will be trying to get into scoring position as soon as we can. Our girls know they can run at any time-they seem to enjoy it and have fun stealing bases.”
While Dishman believes his team is poised for a deep postseason run, its ultimate success will be determined by what happens in the circle.
“We have a bunch of good players back from last year,” Dishman said. “For a Class 1 team, we play the hardest schedule around and hope that prepares for the postseason. It will come down to how good does MaKayla McVay want to be; how far does she want to take this team.”
Walnut Grove opens its season at home Sept. 7 with a double-header against Dora and Willard.