TEAMS TO WATCH
Grace Academy: The Lady Golden Eagles graduated one off last year's team that finished second in the Class A state tournament, and Winter Simpson's return from an ACL injury will provide pitching depth.
Central: The Lady Purple Pounders not only have a top-flight pitcher, Shelby Willard, but senior Sara Walker and sophomores Hannah Powell and Brook Womack potentially could be the best hitters in District 6-AA.
Soddy-Daisy: Although the Lady Trojans graduated a few from last year's Class AAA state-title team, there's plenty of young talent ready to step in. They don't need it, but pitching help also is on the way.
PLAYERS TO WATCH
Kelsey Nunley, Soddy-Daisy: Among her imposing statistics as a sophomore in 2010 were that 17 of her 29 pitching victories were shutouts and she walked 29 in 176 1/3 innings pitched.
Lacye Walker, Grace Academy: The Lady Golden Eagles' gang of one is as productive in the pitching circle as she is in the batter's box. The senior left-hander can contribute in the outfield, too.
Shelby Willard, Central: The right-hander showed plenty of stamina with her 24-8 pitching record and 0.77 ERA as a sophomore last season and often helped herself. She had 18 extra-base hits and 29 RBIs.
Grace Academy's Lady Golden Eagles will consistently be battling two opponents throughout the upcoming high school softball season. The obvious one will be on the field. The other is in their heads.
Grace lost a 2-1 heartbreaker in 10 innings in the Class A state final last May in Murfreesboro. Second baseman Noel Bartley graduated, but the rest of the Lady Golden Eagles return.
That is reason for them to have confidence entering this season, but coach Tina Walker's optimism is guarded. As much as she would love to be the first to guide a Grace Academy team to a state championship of any kind, she wants her players to be mindful that there's a lot of work to do now and only a hope of playing in late May.
"We don't want them looking too far ahead," Walker said. "Then it will never happen."
The Lady Eagles' quest toward what they hope is a championship season begins Monday at 5 p.m. when they host 2010 Class AA state participant Central.
Grace Academy's performance in 2011 again should be sparked by the play of Lacye Walker - daughter of Tina and assistant coach Alan Walker. The senior left-hander had a 28-5 pitching record last season and an ERA of 0.90. She also batted .514, hit 10 home runs and totaled 43 RBIs.
Tina Walker said Lacye had a kidney infection a couple of weeks ago that led to a three-day stay in a hospital and an eight-pound drop in weight. Additionally she said Lacye has had some stomach problems, so even though she expects her daughter to be ready to play at the start of the season, she thinks it may be a few weeks before she's at full strength.
Luckily for the Lady Golden Eagles they're getting back junior right-hander Winter Simpson, who missed last season because of a torn ACL in her left knee that she suffered while playing basketball for Grace. She had surgery in January last year and has since been through rehabilitation.
"I think I can do it, but it's going to be hard because I haven't pitched much to batters since two summers ago," Simpson said. "It's going to be hard working on getting back into pitching shape. Just getting the strength back in my arm has probably been harder. Right now I'm not that fast."
Other key performers will include Simpson's basketball teammate and classmate Kaitlyn Eldridge, who averaged 17 points per game this past season. She will play shortstop and likely bat in the heart of the order.
Junior left-hander Lexie Dean gives the Lady Golden Eagles a solid glove at first base and speed on the basepaths.
"She'll probably be our first or second batter," Tina Walker said. "She can bunt, slap and hit for power. She's a triple threat. She has worked very hard in the offseason."
Another junior, center fielder Bethany Cowart, is a team leader and self-proclaimed loudmouth who takes charge in the outfield - and the dugout, when necessary. She knows that wishing for another chance to play for a state championship isn't going to make it a realization.
"There are steps you've got to take," Cowart said. "It starts with having a good practice each and every day."
Cowart said remaining calm will be a key during games. She believes Grace will get the best effort from its opponents - particularly other District 5 members. They would love nothing more than to sink the Lady Golden Eagles' high expectations.
"Some will say we've got a lot more to lose, but at the same time we've got so much more to gain," Cowart said. "We don't want to be cocky, but confident. Those are two different things. Creating a team bond is our first goal. Even with as many coming back as we have, you still have to do that.
"We can go all the way, but we must be confident, play together and do great things as a team. I'm really excited to get started."