“Play every game like it may be the last game this year.”
Veteran Pierce County Lady Bears coach Robbie Spires is emphasizing that statement to her 2020 team. The uncertainty of COVID-19 with the possible shuttering of sports has fall sports coaches in a quandary.
“The No. 1 thing is not knowing,” said Spires, who has led PCHS to six 20-plus win seasons in the last eight years. The Lady Bears have captured four region titles and posted four region runner-up finishes during that time while posting a 188-75 won-loss mark.
Spires says everything is a distraction for both the coaches and players amid the pandemic. Fortunately, no members of the coaching staff nor any players have tested positive for COVID.
“You can’t focus on your job,” she said. “The players are better focused than adults. We (adults) know what is going on and we’re going to have to adapt to certain things. Our players are just rolling along because they want to play and have fun.
“You have to stay on them because of safety protocol. Now that we’re getting closer to game time, you have to pay more attention to things.”
One of those “things” is the six-foot distancing. Some coaches put their arm around a player “to build them up or to just have a heart-to-heart discussion.”
“We (coaches) have to be careful because we don’t know who’s watching and going to report us (to GHSA),” said Spires. “We can’t high five coming to the dugout, and we can’t shake hands after a game. Old habits are very hard to break.
“This is here for the whole season and it’s a struggle — it’s a distraction, but we will become better from this if we focus. An obstacle is something that will make us better.”
The longtime coach is hoping officials will give some time to the new guidelines.
“It looks like they (officials) may give us some time to adjust to all of the changes,” said Spires. “I think it may come from veteran officials, though. The most innocent thing could be something that is wrong. The GHSA is going to be very critical though as people submit evidence of possible infractions.”
Spires believes games will become very long if umpires are more worried about every little thing being an infraction.
“They’ve got to keep the integrity of the game in check without getting caught up in picky little things,” she stated. “Who knows how this is going to effect the dynamics of the game.”
There were three other areas of concern for Spires.
“They (GHSA) didn’t want concession stands,” she said. “You can’t have people sit in the heat and not have water and drinks to sell. We’ve had to extend our dugouts (home/visitor) and have players not in the lineup sit under a tent to social distance.
“We (PCHS administration) have not talked about seating capacity yet. We could block off the bleacher section and move everyone to the outfield. Everything is impacted.”
While battling through distractions, Spires has to figure out her 2020 edition after losing five seniors (four starters) to graduation. She only has one senior, Makayla Pitts, this year.
“We lost our shortstop, second baseman, first baseman and one outfielder,” said Spires. “They were all in the top half of the batting order. This years players have been tremendous.
“The freshman class has been committed since Day 1. The older players have bought in. The team unity part is there. You have to have that when you’re as young as we are. There’s been a lot of positives.”
Pierce County will go as its pitching corps goes. The staff is anchored by junior Natalie Herrin.
“She’s one of the top pitchers in the region and south Georgia,” said Spires. “She’s also our No. 1 shortstop. If she plays short it gives up perhaps the best defensive team I’ve every had.”
In order for Herrin to play defense, juniors Amiya Tomlinson and Kaylee Cravey, along with sophomore Kadence Godwin will have to step up.
“Amiya missed last year,” said Spires. “She’s slowly working her way back. Kadence has all the tools. She has good speed. Kaylee Cravey has improved over last year.
“None of those three have worked a lot of big games. They need to learn how to handle the stress and adversity.”
Freshmen Lauren Edgar and Ansley Roberson will get in a lot of work with the jayvee.
“We look like were very deep body-wise, but deep doesn’t show the lack of experience because we relied on Herrin,” stated Spires.
Junior Madison Pickett is back as the starting catcher.
She will be backed up by versatile sophomore Natalie Sullivan and freshman LizAnn Hughes.
“Natalie has been looking very strong back there,” said Spires. “She’s a strong athlete and can play pretty much anywhere we need to put her. LizAnn Hughes is coming back from an injury last year.”
Pierce County graduated two first basemen from last year’s squad.
“This is a big gap we’re having to fill after losing our top two players,” said Spires.
Sophomore Kylie Allen and Cravey are the front runners. Cravey’s time there will come when she’s not pitching.
Jayvee-wise, Spires said Edgar and freshman Maura Kate Waters will share the position.
Another position lost to graduation is second base.
“People don’t realize how huge it is to replace one side of the infield,” said Spires, who must replace three-fourths of her infield. “Nobody has really played that spot in a varsity game.”
Freshman Rachel Cason is the leading candidate and the last of a trio of sisters to have played in the program. Juniors Ally Dawson, Ansleigh Clough and Autumn Smith, Brooke Williams and Roberson are also vying for playing time.
Spires said in a dream world Herrin would be there the whole season.
“If she’s not there,” said the head coach, “all of those mentioned as second basemen will move into the spot as well as (freshman) Rylee Carden. She covers a lot of territory with her range.”
Sophomore Rebecca Deloach returns as the lone infielder.
Sophomore Reagan Larson and Pickett will provide depth.
“Reagan is hitting the ball very well right now,” said Spires. “She played a lot of jayvee last year.”
The Lady Bears return Pitts in the outfield. The senior will man center field.
“She’s the voice that has to talk them (corner outfielders) through things and be the glue that tries to hold them all together,” said Spires.
Juniors Natalee Griffin, Tivona Myles, Sarah Davis and Emma Tyrone, along with freshmen Mollie Ann Pitts and Ava Murray are in the mix to play left and right field..
“Ansleigh can got out there and Natalie Sullivan has great speed and athletic ability to play out there,” said Spires. “With Pitts, Griffin and Myles out there you have a lot of speed. Sarah missed a year. A lot of kids are going to get some playing time out there.”
Spires feels the team to beat is defending region champion Brantley County.
With no season-ending region tournament, seeding for the state tournament will be based on region standings. Teams are playing a triple round-robin schedule.
“They’ve (Lady Herons) got the Region Pitcher of the Year (Lindy Lowther) back,” said Spires. “They lost some of their speed, but they’re going to be fine. Our challenge is Brantley County. It’s always a rivalry game when we play.”
Depending on the youthful talent and how quickly it develops, the veteran coach put Appling County and PCHS as pretty even heading into the season.
Long County and Tattnall County round out the region competition.
“Long still has its pitcher, said Spires. “She’s the “bread-and-butter” of that team. If I’m them and Brantley, I’m putting my pitcher in a bubble. I can survive with our depth, but I don’t know if they can.
“Tattnall County has a new coach. I’m sure there will be a lot of improvements there. They will be well-coached and young as well.”