JASPER, Tenn. - Maybe the toughest word to accept in sports is "almost." To come close but not quite accomplish a goal can haunt players and coaches alike, or it can serve as the inspiration that drives a team to surpass expectations.
Motivated by the disappointment of falling one step shy of reaching the state tournament a year ago, the Marion County softball team has become one of the area's best bets to still be playing when the Spring Fling opens next month.
Despite the loss of two would-be starters who transferred, one senior starter and a coaching switch since last season, the Lady Warriors are winning at a more impressive rate than last year's 30-plus-win season. In fact, Marion has hammered District 6-A competition, winning by the 10-run mercy rule in nine of 11 district games before losing 3-1 Thursday at Whitwell, and with just two district games remaining they've nearly wrapped up the regular-season title.
"It wasn't an easy pill to swallow, losing two girls that we were going to count on pretty heavily," said coach Chris Thomas, who was an assistant last year but swapped roles with former head coach Thomas Long. "But even without them, up and down the lineup we're hitting the ball really well right now. We've had some girls step up, and it's gotten to the point that there are no weak spots in the order. Our No. 7 and No. 8 hitters are both over .500, so that tells you how tough we can be.
"We tried not to make the coaching change a big deal. I had worked with most of these girls in middle school and the last couple of years as an assistant, so we just kept things going about the same as last year."
Among the bevy of heavy hitters for Marion, junior right fielder Taylor Brown ranks among the top three in the area with seven home runs, 10 doubles and 34 RBIs going into Thursday's game. She is one of five Lady Warriors batting over .500, and a sixth is just below that mark.
Marion (23-3) has a chance to avenge one of its losses today as it opens pool play in the Soddy-Daisy Invitational against Baylor. The Class A Lady Warriors, whose other loss before Thursday was to Class AAA Volunteer High, also play Maryville and Boyd-Buchanan today.
Baylor starting catcher Cassi Pickett played at Marion last year before transferring and is now batting .512 and has thrown out four of six runners trying to steal.
Junior Kelli Bruning made the transition from third base to behind the plate and has benefited from working with returning pitchers Heather Richards and Kelsey Thomas, who have combined for 16 of the team's wins.
"That's kind of been the story for us this year - having people move around wherever we needed them and stepping up," said Thomas, who will try to return the Lady Warriors to the state tournament for the first time since 1993. "We had four seniors and four juniors with a lot of experience, and we've developed more depth than people thought, I guess.
"We tried not to put a whole lot of pressure on them about the state tournament, but that's always been in the back of our minds. It really doesn't need to be talked about a lot. It's just a matter of getting better and making it happen now."