published Sunday, March 11th, 2012

Marion County’s softball team eyes state return

Marion County catcher Keli Bruning throws the ball while practicing before playing Baylor Tuesday afternoon at Marion County High School.
Marion County catcher Keli Bruning throws the ball while practicing before playing Baylor Tuesday afternoon at Marion County High School.
Photo by Angela Lewis.

TEAMS TO WATCH

  1. Baylor: The defending Division II-AA state champion was 33-8 last season and had no key personnel losses.
  2. Central: The Lady Purple Pounders graduated one starter off last year's Class AA state-tournament team.
  3. Soddy-Daisy: The power portion of the lineup graduated, but the Lady Trojans still have pitching and defense.

PLAYERS TO WATCH

  1. Kelsey Nunley, senior, Soddy-Daisy: She's a Kentucky signee about to begin her fourth season as the main starting pitcher for a program that's played in the last two Class AAA finals, winning in 2010.
  2. Shelby Willard, senior, Central: The pitcher seeks to bounce back from a leg injury that caused her to miss about a month in 2011. She could lead a state-title run before heading to Chattanooga State.
  3. Katie Henderson, Silverdale Baptist: Also a Kentucky signee, she's had to deal with stress fractures throughout her prep career. If healthy, she can be among the top Class A pitchers in the state.

JASPER, Tenn. -- Every season there are athletic teams that have high hopes and are eager to get started. Count Marion County's softball team among them.

Softball season for TSSAA teams is set to start Monday. The Lady Warriors are scheduled to begin Thursday with a trip to Spencer for a District 6-A doubleheader against Van Buren County at 4:30 EDT.

Last season was a memorable one for Marion County (36-10), which finished fourth in the state tournament. The only other Lady Warriors softball team to advance to a state tournament went 0-2 in 1993.

This year's group feels it can make school history.

"I think we're pretty solid in each area," said senior Keli Bruning, who batted .436 in 2011 and primarily will play catcher for the Lady Warriors. "We just need to work on the little things. I think we can go as far as we want to. As long as we work together, we can go back to where we were -- maybe even further."

Their first order of business, however, will be trying to repeat as distrct regular-season champions, then as district-tournament champions. To achieve those things, they need to find successors for the four seniors -- two now playing for Chattanooga State -- who graduated off last year's team.

"We're going to miss them, definitely," said Bruning, who has signed with Motlow State. "But we've got talented other players to compensate for those losses."

Coach Chris Thomas has had a large freshman class to evaluate in preseason workouts. Ninth-grader Tori Hansard looks to be in line for a starting job.

"We lost a lot, but we also gained a lot," said Brooke Baxter, a speedy center fielder who batted .427 a year ago and as a junior has already committed to East Tennessee State. "We have a lot of good freshmen. They just need to improve in game situations."

One of the players who moved on to Chattanooga State is Heather Richards, who pitched frequently for Marion County the last couple of years. Senior Kelsey Thomas, the coach's daughter, enjoys playing shortstop but realizes more of the pitching load now will be on her.

She said Chattanooga State coach Beth Keylon-Randolph has been her pitching tutor for a long time and has helped her with several aspects. Thomas, who batted .422 last season, believes she's up for the challenge.

"I'm going to have to work hard," she said. "I know I'm going to have to get better."

She will get pitching help mainly from freshman Erika O'Kane, a transfer from Signal Mountain who said she loves her new surroundings. She was somewhat familiar with her new teammates because she faced them when she was an eighth-grader pitching for the Lady Eagles' varsity last season.

"I could see they had hitters," O'Kane said. "Besides talent, they set goals and believe they're going to make it. They all work together.

"Mistakes are part of the game, but when they happen they're not going to point them out. It's all right. You get them the next time."

Senior Taylor Brown batted .496 a year ago. Hitting no doubt will be a team strength.

If the pitching and defense come around, the Lady Warriors could pose a threat to not only the Class A teams in the Chattanooga area but statewide.

"I know we're going to hit the ball throughout our lineup," Coach Thomas said. "Defensively, right now there's a few things in question. We're still trying to tweak a few things and get people where they need to be.

"We've still got some work to do. I think it will come along."

about Kelley Smiddie...

Kelley Smiddie is a sports writer who has worked at the Times Free Press for 12 years. He covers high school sports and softball. Kelley’s hometown is Chattanooga, and he graduated from Brainerd High School and graduated Chattanooga State and UTC. Contact Kelley at 423-757-6653 or ksmiddie@timesfreepress.com.

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