<strong>1. Northwest Whitfield.</strong> The Lady Bruins return seven starters from last season’s 35-3 Class AAAA championship team, six of them seniors, and four of those hit better than .400.
<strong>2. Gordon Lee.</strong> More bad news for Class A as the Lady Trojans return all but one starter from a year ago and have another ace pitcher waiting to take her turn, Emily Armour.
<strong>3. Dade County.</strong> A dominant pitcher can take a team a long way. Add a power-laden lineup and improved defense and the Lady Wolverines are ready for a Class AA repeat.
1. Bayli Cruse, Northwest Whitfield. The Tennessee Tech recruit batted .413 with nine homers and 43 RBIs while striking out just three times in 2012. She’s also one of the top defensive catchers in the state.
2. Madison Gossett, Dade County. The four-year starter and recent Brenau University commitment won 23 games last year with 355 strikeouts and just 109 hits allowed in 210 innings while batting .354.
3. Ashley Conner, Northwest Whitfield. The UTC recruit is strong with the glove and is coming off a season in which she hit .422 wth nine doubles, 34 RBIs, 40 runs scored and 10 stolen bases.
The northwest Georgia area long has been known as a hotbed for fastpitch softball, but even for this area last season was off the charts. In the four GHSA classifications that include area schools, there were three state champions and a runner-up, but was it really an aberration?
Each of the three titlists — Northwest Whitfield in Class AAAA, Dade County in AA and Gordon Lee in A — returns a lot of talent, as does AAA runner-up Ringgold. In addition, Region 7-AAAA runner-up Heritage again is strong, as is reigning Region 7-AA champion Calhoun. Those six teams won a combined 179 games last year and return more than 80 percent of their starters.
“Can we repeat? Right now I’m just worried about our region, which is tough enough,” Northwest coach Jason Brooker said. “I expect us to do well considering our experience, and because of those returning starters we’re a pretty confident team. Right now, though, I’m not looking that far ahead.”
The Lady Bruins lost all-state pitcher Emily Boyd, who’s now at Ole Miss, but a bevy of .400 hitters return and junior Brileigh Baggett, who was 7-1 with a 1.36 ERA last year, is ready to assume the ace role.
Dade County returns a core including ace Madison Gossett and slugging catcher Madison Lacy from last year’s surprising championship run, and co-coaches Autumn Sigler and Christine Core welcome a strong group of sophomores and freshmen.
“With Madison returning and the strong hitters, we’re excited for the season,” Sigler said. “Everyone’s asking us if we can repeat, but we’re not worrying about that.”
The biggest favorite among area teams is again Gordon Lee, where coach Dana Mull returns all but pitcher Kalei Kimbrell from last year’s 35-win team and third consecutive state championship. A lineup that specializes in putting the ball in play and putting pressure on defenses is only going to get better, and sophomore pitcher Emily Armour will step right in after going 13-0 with a miniscule 0.44 ERA in an understudy role last season.
“This team has all the tools to be competitive again in our region and state,” Mull said. “We will be tested early with some injuries, and our pitchers will have to step up after losing Kalei.”
Ringgold suffered the heaviest losses of the 2012 area powers with the graduation of all-star third baseman Ericka Bynum and pitcher Brittany Portwood, but with Devan Brown back at shortstop, Chandlar Turner again at first base and Abby McKinney ready to take over in the circle, the Lady Tigers again will be the 5-AAA favorites.
The depth is also strong at Calhoun, where ace Alyssa Shawgo (21-5) and shortstop Taylor Kelly (.471, seven homers) returns, and at Heritage, where all-state pitcher Lauren Lawson and all-star outfielder Olivia Tamewitz lead a team with just one senior.
While a repeat of last season’s success might be difficult, area coaches wouldn’t be surprised.
<em>Contact Lindsey Young at email@example.com or at 423-757-6296.</em>