Despite witnessing an 0-3 start to the season, Russell softball coach Ron Osborn can envision his Lady Devils hoisting the 63rd District trophy for what would be a sixth consecutive season.
Greenup County, though, still may be breathing down their necks. With one-run and two-run defeats over the last two district tournament title games, the Lady Musketeers seem to be inching closer and closer to breaking the district stranglehold.
“Greenup will be one of the toughest teams we’ll face,” Osborn said.
Very few expect Raceland and Lewis County to be pushovers. Last season, the district produced four records of a .500 winning percentage or better.
New this year is the fact that the district is seeded, which means all regular-season district outcomes will factor into the tournament bracket.
“Russell, until they’re knocked off, is the favorite,” said Greenup County coach Eric Keeton.
The Lady Devils return speedy senior shortstop Sydney Watkins, veteran senior catcher Arden Gross and a cast of blossoming juniors and underclassmen.
Mallory Powell, a junior, is a “deceptive” pitcher, said Osborn. Freshman Cassie Fultz will also see time in the circle. Powell also packs a good deal of power at the plate.
Hannah Carter, a switch-hitting junior third baseman, joined Powell as sophomore All-Area selections last season.
Osborn said Gross has clearly emerged as a leader, and an up-and-coming group of young talent is following her and Watkins’ guidance.
“I don’t like walking on eggshells with players, and I don’t have to with this team,” said Osborn, entering his eighth season at the helm. “They all get along.”
Hope Parsley has exemplified the solid team chemistry by lending her glove to the outfield. Early indications have highlighted fielding as the biggest weakness for the Lady Devils, so Parsley took it upon herself to help Osborn shore up the defense.
“That just shows the camaraderie this team has,” he said.
“This team is going to be a great little ball club,” he added. “We’ll be there (near the top of the 16th Region) by the end.”
With just three seniors, Greenup County may appear inexperienced on paper but, as Keeton points out, most of the Lady Musketeers have a lot of innings under their belts.
“They bring a lot of maturity,” said the fifth-year coach.
Greenup County has reached the region tournament in each of the past two seasons after experiencing a nine-year drought.
“We bowed out in the first round the last two years,” Keeton said. “I expect greater things now. It’s time to take the next step.”
Unlike Russell at this juncture, defense has proved to be a leaning post for the Lady Musketeers. It all starts with sure-handed fielders on the left side of the infield in Maddie Greene (shortstop) and Sam Mitchell (third base).
Jordan Moore is steady and speedy up the middle in center field. Casey Meenach can cover a lot of ground in left field, too.
With bat in hand, Keeton works extensively on keeping his fielders on their toes.
“The girls complain that I hit the balls too hard in practice,” Keeton chuckled. “But I know if they can catch mine, they can probably field anybody’s.”
Brooke Johnson will handle pitching duties, while Paige Howard and Lexie Traylor will likely supply time behind the plate in attempting to replace departed senior Meriah Euton.
Raceland will continue to rely on shortstop Bre Grubb in the middle of the Lady Rams’ lineup. As coach Shawn Johnson pointed out, Grubb did some of her best hitting during Raceland’s 18-18 season in 2012 against some the region’s better pitchers.
“She’s got power and she’s a threat,” Johnson said. “She comes up big at opportune times.”
Johnson likened pitcher Kelsey Diller to Greg Maddux, saying “she’s not going to overpower people, but she’s going to get outs.”
Lacee Penix could do most of the catching. Center fielder Taylor Podunavan and aggressive third baseman Chloe Adkins are also top returners for Raceland.
Savannah Mackie could come onto the scene strongly, said Johnson, noting her skills and athleticism.
Johnson sees potential in his team, and he thinks it can compete in the tough 63rd District. However, he is strongly opposed to seeding because it favors larger schools, he said. He, like Rams baseball coach Randy Vanderhoof, is in support of seeding the entire region.
“If you seeded the region, you’d eliminate districts,” Johnson said. “Then you truly put a premium on regular-season games.”
Lewis County is under the direction of first-year head coach Kayla Lykins, a former player and current math teacher. The 2006 Lewis County graduate was an assistant last season. Her father is former longtime softball coach Jim Lykins.
The Lady Lions are off to a 2-1 start as the players and coach are getting accustomed to one another.
“People thought my dad was pretty tough, but I think I might be a little bit tougher,” she laughed. “I think they’ve kind of had a hard time adjusting to three different coaches in three years, but things are going pretty well so far.”
So far, most of her advice and criticism have been absorbed well by her overall young crew.
The team suffered a loss on the mound with the transferring of Courtnae Bolander to Rowan County, but the Lady Lions hope to make up for it with the trio of Kelsey Rizzo, Emily Bentley and Jalyssa Cortez.
“We don’t necessarily have the fastest pitching, but it’s consistent,” Lykins said. “They throw strikes.”
Taylor Frye is a standout senior who has already signed to play basketball at Rio Grande next year. She will play catcher and third base.
Darbi Hardin and Tori Liles are the other two seniors — Hardin plays first base and Liles center field.
“(Hardin) has really stepped up as our best leader so far this season,” Lykins said. “(Liles) makes all the catches we need her to make in the outfield.”
AARON SNYDER can be reached at email@example.com or (606) 326-2664.