By Dana Harding (For OzarksSportsZone.com)
Willard’s softball program continued to improve in 2019.
The Lady Tigers finished the season with a 16-11 record, falling to Carthage in the Class 4 District 11 tournament.
Head coach AshLeigh Williams, entering her 11th year at the helm, believes the upward trend can certainly continue this season.
“We took some major strides as a program and felt we really turned a corner,” Williams said. “We beat Ozark for the first time in 10 years, we finished in the top 3 in the conference and we legitimately felt like we could compete with anyone. I think when you have a season like that, it does a lot for confidence moving forward. I believe my kids are ready to build on that confidence and hopefully produce an even better season this year.”
In order to meet her goals, Williams will first need to find replacements for four starters lost to graduation, including shortstop Sara Morris, third baseman Baylee Gastineau, left fielder Maliyah Wells and right fielder Amaya Foster.
“Those four seniors were great leaders for the team,” Williams said. “They came in every day ready to work and get better. As sophomores, they were a part of a season that was pretty tough. After that season, they made it their mission to not have that happen again. While they might not have been the most talented softball players, their competitiveness, work ethic, grit and confidence could not be matched. This really rubbed off on our younger players and helped the program turn a corner.”
A trio of upperclassmen in senior center fielder Kallie Crews (.395 BA, 1 HR, 15 RBI, 11 SB), junior catcher Ryley Ritchey (.458 BA, 2 HR, 23 RBI, 3 SB) and junior pitcher Sydni Fletcher (13-8, 2.55 ERA, .280 BA, 10 RBI) will be leaders this year.
“Kallie sets the table for us, offensively,” Williams said. “In the outfield, she can track down just about any ball and has a cannon for an arm. When everyone else seemed to struggle (last season), Ryley was able to find a way to get on base. She controls the game behind the plate and has really grown in her game knowledge, blocking skills and overall leadership.”
Fletcher returns to the circle for her third varsity season and second as the team’s primary pitcher.
“Sydni has been working on an array of pitches this off season and has come a long way with her command of the strike zone,” Williams said. “Sydni is constantly analyzing the competition trying to figure out the best way to get the opposing hitters out and making adjustments throughout the game. She is one of the smartest softball players I’ve ever been around.”
Williams also has high hopes for senior shortstop Kiki Walker, a move-in from Hillcrest.
“We look forward to (Walker) making an immediate impact on both sides of the ball,” Williams said. “Kiki comes in with a lot of experience at shortstop, but is also able to shift to third base if necessary. She has great hands, quick feet and a cannon for an arm. The only downside is I wish she had more than just one season left.”
Williams also expects a strong freshman class to compete for varsity innings.
“There are multiple freshmen that could make an immediate impact at the varsity level,” Williams said. “They provide options in all facets of the game — offensively, defensively and pitching. Their skills combined with the leadership from the upperclassmen will hopefully lead to a successful season.”
Williams believes her team has all the necessary components to compete with anyone on the schedule this season.
“We should be more experienced and more athletic than previous years,” Williams said. “We would like to finish in the top part of the conference and be able to pull out some wins that no one expects.”
That said, with the fall sports landscape in a constant state of flux, Williams also recognizes her team’s biggest hurdle might not be on the field.
“My first hope right now is that we get to have a season,” Williams said. “I understand how difficult the spring season being cancelled was for athletes, especially senior athletes. I don’t want to see my players go through that, but I also want all my players to be/stay safe and healthy.”
Following an Aug. 21 jamboree at Monett, Willard opens its season Aug. 29 at Walnut Grove.