By Pat Dailey (For OzarkSportsZone.com)
Carthage coach Stephanie Ray is confident in comparing the Lady Tigers’ schedule the last two seasons with any program in the state.
She points to the formidable slate Carthage faced last season as the trigger to the Lady Tigers’ 14-game winning streak down the stretch.
Ray is counting on another strong schedule to again set Carthage up for success this season.
“The last two years we have played a very strong schedule to prepare us for not only our tough conference, but our district tournament as well,” Ray said. “This year, we have tried to do the same thing. We are playing in four tournaments, three of those being the first three weekends of the season. We have 34 games on our schedule leading into districts. It doesn’t leave us a lot of time to practice once we get into the game-portion of our season. But with a lot of new faces in the starting lineup, we feel game experience is what they need the most.
“It will definitely be a lot of games for our young team,” she added. “But it will also be key in our growth and development, not only individually but as a team. In both of the last two seasons, we had slow starts, but growth at the same time. We (were) peaking right at the end, resulting in 19- and 21-win seasons.”
Carthage’s progress will depend largely on the pitching of Ashlynn Jackson, Addie Wallace and Lottie Youngblood. They take over for Jensyn Elder, who last year enjoyed a stellar senior season that saw her named All-COC First-Team.
Elder blossomed into a 21-game winner with 311 strikeouts.
“She was definitely someone special,” Ray said. “With that being said, we have three young ladies who have stepped and want that ball. They are all true competitors and have been working on gaining velocity as well spotting their best pitches.”
Jackson has had to wait until her senior year to assume the role as the Lady Tigers’ ace. Ray thinks she is rising to the challenge.
“She had a great summer and has been working her tail off to prove she deserves opportunities,” Ray said. “When she isn’t pitching, she has the ability to play some second base or outfield. (Wallace) threw some really great games this summer and will compliment Jackson well. (Youngblood) has an amazing work ethic and is very gritty player.”
Carthage’s returning starters from a year ago are Landry Cochran, Ashlyn Brust and Brooklynn Dolon-Main.
Cochran, who had 20 RBIs last season, is being moved from lead-off to the middle of the batting order.
“We are looking to plug her back into the middle of the lineup, with some younger girls ahead of her who have the ability to get on base and are fast,” Ray said. “We made the decision to move her to the three-hole midway through (last) season to drive in more runs.”
Cochran will provide leadership in center field.
“She is a true general out there and does a great job remembering the opposing teams last at-bats and positioning the rest of the outfield,” Ray said. “You can hear Landry out there talking to them and helping with adjustments.”
Carthage is counting on Ashlyn Brust to carry over her success as a freshman from last season. As a designated player batting out of the second or nine hole, she burst upon the scene in a big way by banging out 34 hits for a .386 batting average, to go with 10 stolen bases.
Brust won’t be such a secret weapon this time around, as she figures to bat at the top of the Lady Tigers’ lineup and could settle in at shortstop.
“She did a great job helping to drive in runs at the bottom and turn the lineup over to the top,” Ray said. “She is a great contact hitter who also has the ability to drive the ball. She has great speed and we are hoping to turn her into our leadoff hitter.
Dolon-Main returns as Carthage’s catcher, after batting .250 as a sophomore last season.
“She won the job behind the plate for us last year 10 games into the season,” Ray said. “She worked well with Jensyn and we are looking for her to use that experience with some of our new pitchers this season. Brooklynn showed signs of having a strong bat for us early last season and has a little pop. We are excited to see what she can do for us at the plate.”
Alexis Smith, Jenna Calhoun, Lexa Youngblood, Shelby Hegwer, Aven Willis and Addison Bayless will also all look to contribute.
“We have several girls who were able to gain some valuable varsity experience the last few years and will be looking to step into full-time roles,” Ray said. “These girls are young and eager to step onto the field and show off their skill level.
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“As a freshman, (Smith) stepped in and caught a few conference games for us due to others being quarantined,” Ray added. “She did a great job and gives us another option behind the dish. She is also an aggressive infielder. (Calhoon) played several games for us last year at third base and also received a few pinch-hitting opportunities. She has some pretty good pop in her bat, and we look for her to drive in a lot of runs. (Youngblood) gained valuable varsity experience for us last fall out in right field. She has speed and a great first step on her reads in the outfield. She has the ability to drive in runs, as well as steal bases.”
The Lady Tigers’ goal is capture their program’s first district championship.