By Kary Booher (For OzarksSportsZone.com)
One year after having only 11 players on the roster, Fair Grove High School softball coach Tara Whetzell stepped up her game. Fortunately, she was able to move from teaching in the elementary school to working at the high school.
“Building relationships is definitely a part of it,” said Whetzell, a second-year coach who has spent this year working in a weights class with the basketball coach. “I’m hard-nosed and old-school. Fortunately, this year, they know my personality. I think that helps.”
Now look. Fair Grove is expecting a roster of about 20 and, even better, the program has several returnees from a team that finished 14-5 and reached the Class 2 District 8 semifinals.
Among them are seniors Shyan Proctor, Jordan Coddington and Taylor Bell. Proctor and Coddington not only headline the pitching staff, but they also could anchor the offense, while Bell patrols the leadership role of center field and packs a punch offensively as well.
Proctor earned First Team All-Conference and Second Team All-District as a pitcher a year ago, when she owned a 2.29 earned run average in 58 innings, with 62 strikeouts and 26 walks.
Coddington also earned First Team All-Mid-Lakes and was Second Team All-District, both as a utility. She had 35 strikeouts and 22 walks in 54 innings, finishing with a 2.46 ERA.
It’s no wonder Whetzell calls them “work horses.” They also are an effective one-two punch, especially if they are switched out on the mound in the middle of games.
“(Shyan) has more speed on her pitches and can get by people,” Whetzell said. “But Jordan is a great leader. She doesn’t throw as hard, but she can move the ball.”
Whetzell is challenging the two and Bell to take on greater leadership roles.
“Those three are tight-knit,” Whetzell said. “I expect them to be more vocal and (tell teammates), ‘Let’s get it done. That work ethic, that’s big for me.”
Coddington batted .411 with a .507 on-base percentage, .625 slugging percentage and .907 fielding percentage. Proctor, who can play shortstop or third base when not pitching, hit .479 with a .536 OPB and .604 slugging.
“(Coddington) hits the ball hard is very patient at working the count,” Whetzell said. “It made me nervous at first last year, but it’s her comfort zone. (Shyan) just goes up there and hits.”
Bell was a First Team All-Mid Lakes outfielder and All-District last year when she hit .365 with a .391 OBP, .492 slugging and had a .839 fielding percentage.
“She’s my line-drive hitter,” Whetzell said. “She’s got long, lanky arms. And she makes plays in center field that I don’t think she can get to. Last year, I had two younger girls on the sides of her. She stepped up vocally. This year, I expect her to do even more.”
The rest of the projected lineup has juniors Ryah Icenhower in right field, Ella Hymes in left field and Tristan Cross at first base, while sophomores Leah Weaver possibly could be at second base and Anna Johnston at catcher. Shortstop is wide open, although with more players this year, there should be increased competition for varsity starting jobs.
Hymes played summer travel ball and organized offseason workouts. Weaver has been working on longtoss to strengthen her arm, while sophomore Halli Phifer and senior Brandi Bass could play roles.
Johnston takes over catching duties.
“Physically and mentally, I think she’s grown,” Whetzell said. “Behind the player, she was slow. But we talked about how she needs to get quicker and blocking the ball. The more experience she gets, the better she’s going to be.”
Given last year’s record and the experience returning, Whetzell wants Fair Grove to take the next step, which would mean reaching the district championship game and a shot at possibly defending state champion Strafford.
“I would love to see that,” Whetzell said. “We’ve got to get better at preparing and playing small ball (against top-line pitchers) and not worrying about who’s going against such-and-such. If we overcame that, we can be right up there with Strafford and Plato.”