A veteran pitching staff will have to carry a young and inexperienced squad as the Pierce County Lady Bears begin the 2016 season.
Veteran head coach Robbie Spires has three experienced arms to put in the pitching circle at her disposal and five experienced bats to put in the lineup. Unfortunately, only one bat returns to the infield that was decimated by graduation.
“We’re about seven deep with our pitching and we’re blessed,” said Spires. “The issue is health with them. We lost four of our five starting infielders and several were four-year starters. We’re (coaches) having to move people around position-wise to fill the holes.”
PCHS is coming off a 28-5 campaign a year ago that ended with a second round home playoff series loss to East Jackson. The Lady Bears won their first region title since 2012 and were ranked in the Top 10 poll all season. Last year’s senior class posted a 110-31 won-loss mark during their careers and reached the Elite 8 twice.
“In the years we’ve won the region title we’ve struggled in the playoffs,” said Spires. If we finish second or third we seem to make the Elite 8. Last year’s team went way above and beyond what anybody believed they could do with an inexperienced pitching staff.”
Graduating starters from the team were Sarah Beth King, Amber Cason, Regan Sikes and Ashley Hunt. King was a four-year starter at catcher and ended her career as the co-Player of the Year in the region. She was also an all-state selection.
Cason was a three-year mainstay at short and was selected to the all-region and all-state teams. Sikes was a two-year starter at second and was co-Player of the Year and all-state. Hunt was a four-year starter and four-time all-state selection.
The expectations may not be as high for some as in previous years as Spires fills some holes with inexperienced players.
“We’re young and we’re going to make mistakes, but they are very resiliant group,” she said. “We’ve had a good summer. What I’m looking for is for players to step up and be hitters in the box and be fielders defensively. That’s the challenges we’re facing. We need the players to step up because they all have that capability.”
Pierce is also moving to a new region sliding over from Region 1-AAA to Region 2-AAA. Gone are all the Savannah schools.
“Overall, it’s better than the last couple of years,” said Spires. “We won’t score 18 runs in an inning. But, I still don’t think the region is as I would like. We don’t have a strong team like Dodge County in the mix.”
The new six-team region has newcomers Liberty County and Long County, and old faces in Brantley County, Tattnall County and Appling County.
Spires thinks Brantley County is in the best position of all.
“They (Lady Herons) finished up last year strong and they are always a challenge for us,” said Spires. “They have more of their core players back than anybody in the region. Tattnall County has a new coach and is rebuilding. Appling County is like us in that they (Lady Pirates) are having to fill some key positions.
“Liberty is a question mark. I do know they have one pitcher. Long lost its best pitcher and will be young. It’s going to be interesting. That’s why we’re playing in two very strong tournaments early to see where we are at.”
PCHS returns senior Tiffany Turner along with juniors Harlie Phillips and Kimberly Gray, both all-region selections, to a pitching staff that goes seven deep.
“We are strong with our pitching,” said Spires, “but, the issue is health. The good thing is they all can play somewhere else and they can hit. They are all-around players.”
Turner went 7-2 with a 1.19 ERA last season missing the last third of the year with a concussion.
“Tiffany has had a very good summer,” Spires said. “She’s throwing the ball really well and hitting the ball very good. She’s worked hard to get back after suffering the concussion.”
Phillips led the staff in wins and ERA last season going 11-2 with a 0.99 ERA. Phillips finished with a 6-1 mark positing a 1.37 ERA and recorded three saves.
Another junior on the staff is Tristan Deloach, who pitched for the jayvee last season.
“Kimberly and Tristan can both play in the outfield,” Spires said. “Harlie can play either first or third and Tiffany can play second. We have interchangable parts.”
The Lady Bears also have a sophomore and two freshmen. Kylee Royer (So.) was an all-region selection as a freshman at first base. The freshman class as Faith Bryant and Logan Todd.
“Kylee is going to suprise some folks,” said Spires. “She’s a big, strong kid. Faith is our only lefty and she can play first and the outfield. Logan has been shut down for four weeks with a meniscus tear. She can also play in the outfield. The biggest thing for us, though, is injuries.”
The loss of King has forced Spires to move starting outfielder Ellington Day (Sr.) to behind the plate.
“Ellington was all-region and second team all-state outfielder last year. She has played the position coming up at PCMS and in travel ball. She has excellent feet and has a strong arm, knows the game.”
Day batted .306 last year with three homers and 27 RBIs.
Backing up the senior is freshman Jessica Todd.
“She is Hunt’s cousin and reminds me a lot of her,” said Spires. “Jessica works hard every day and could start later in the year allowing us to move Day back to the outfield. Both have big bats and will hit in the middle of the lineup.”
Royer returns to the position where she garnered all-region status after batting .284 and driving in 18 runs.
She had a good freshman year last season,” Spires said.
Freshman Tristan Blocker was expected to be the backup, but she suffered an injury (broken vertabrae in back) playing travel ball and her availability is in question.
“If we needed to, Phillips and Gray could move in to the position,” said Spires. “Bryant could also play some there.”
Turner and sophomore Megan Cason could share duties at second. Turner may get the nod.
Three others that are getting looks are junior Gabby Garner, sophomore MacKenzie Davis, and freshman Mackenzie Boatright.
Senior Mary Katherine Carter (.346 average, 13 RBIs) is the second member of last year’s outfield being brought inside the diamond. Carter played left.
“She plays infield with her travel ball team, so its not a new position,” said Spires. “She’s gotten reps there in the past playing as a backup. She’s going to be solid.”
Backing her up is freshman Hannah Pitts.
Sophomore Parker Smith is the leading candidate to fill the vacated position of Hunt. Others who could see some action are Jessica Todd, Davis and freshman Tori O’Berry.
“This is probably the biggest hole to fill,” said Spires. “You’ve got to have somebody that has some guts to play there. Hunt was unbelievable.
“Parker played there for the jayvee. She’s work hard on her bat and defensively. MacKenzie is our utility player because she can play anywhere. Tori will play jayvee and may receive some varsity time later in the season.
Spires has plenty of bodies to run in the outfield. Senior Ginny Aldridge (.268, 15 RBIs) will be the anchor and play in right.
Abby Cox and Garner are the lone juniors in the mix. The sophomore class has Kaylee Allen and Kaitlyn Spell with the freshman class being represented by Emma Day, Alexis Pike, Logan Todd and Bryant.
This years team is more versatile in years past at the plate, according to Spires.
“We’re going to be fun to watch in a different kind of way instead of relying on the long ball,” she said. “We’ll be doing a lot more of the short game. We’re going to cause defensive miscues because of what we can do.
“We’ve got some slappers and strong bunters to go along with a little power. We’ve got the ability to manufacture runs instead of sitting back and waiting on the home run.”