RINGGOLD, Ga. — It's not often two of Georgia's most successful high school softball programs change coaches in the same year. It's even more unusual when the two schools are in the same county.
Ringgold and Heritage have made the state playoffs in each of the past five seasons. Each program reached the state tournament in Columbus in three of those years and each is coming off a 21-14 season that fell short of expectations, though for different reasons.
Each of the two Catoosa County schools also introduces a former assistant as head coach: Tanner Moore at Heritage and Daniel Hackett at Ringgold. They inherit rosters that lost heavily to graduation.
They also share the belief that neither of the programs is ready to take a step back.
"We're just looking to challenge people again," said Moore, a Heritage assistant for three seasons before leaving to help at Lee University. "There's a kind of familiar energy with the program and some new energy. The young talent is still here, and they all play at a high level in the summer."
The Heritage program was rocked last year by the death of then-coach Jason Carter's daughter during the season. The Lady Generals, who also suffered key injuries, still managed to make the Class AAAA playoffs. Carter still teaches at the school and remains close to the program but resigned as coach after the season.
"Last year was tough on everybody — the whole program and the school," Moore said. "The girls still persevered and still made the state tournament. Jason visited the girls a couple of weeks ago, and they love him. Anything we can do for him and his family we will do, and we let him know that he's always going to be a part of our program."
Moore's first season will feature a strong pitching staff anchored by all-state Madi Morris and fellow seniors Taelyn Bates and Ashley Faulkenberry. Four freshmen and several sophomores will be counted on in the lineup.
Ringgold's 2016 season also was marred by injury and inexperience in the circle, though the Lady Tigers still made it to the second round of the Class AAA playoffs.
Hackett takes over a team with just one senior — third baseman Kaylee Womack — and two juniors, but the coach hopes a talented young group led by pitcher Kaylee Phillips and outfielder Shelby Cole will keep the winning tradition alive.
"There's a lot of young talent," said Hackett, who was an assistant under the past two coaches, Shane Pendley and Rachel Hodge. "Like most schools we've only had a few come out for practice since the (summer) nationals are still going on, but so far I like what I see.
"I'm as thrilled as can be to be heading the program. Three years ago I wasn't quite ready when Rachel stepped down, so I'm so glad the opportunity came open again and they believe I am the right person."
Contact Lindsey Young at email@example.com or 423-757-6296. Follow him on Twitter @youngsports22.
Players, Teams to Watch
Players to watch
› Gracey Kruse, Gordon Lee. The future UTC Moc led the Lady Trojans to the Class A public state championship a year ago with a .521 average and 61 RBIs while also excelling in center field.
› Haley Sandridge, Ridgeland. The shortstop combined a 94-percent fielding rate with a .510 batting average as a junior while helping lead the Lady Panthers to a region title and a state tourney appearance.
› Lauren Parker, Dalton. As a sophomore, the outfielder led the Lady Catamounts into their second consecutive Class AAAAAA state tourney with a .478 average, 14 doubles and 34 RBIs.
Teams to watch
› Gordon Lee. The 2016 Class A state champion lost only two starters to graduation and returns center fielder Gracey Kruse, elite pitcher Canaan Burnett, speedy shortstop Faith Alexander and third baseman Paxton Grimes.
› Calhoun. Most teams that graduate six starters who will play in college this season are expected to take a step back, but the Lady Yellow Jackets again should contend thanks to the return of pitchers Torri Gaddis, who was all-state first team, and Kayla Watson and .440 hitters Maddie Bumgardner, Carlie Henderson and Erin Barnes.
› Ridgeland. The 2016 Region 6-AAAA champion, which reached the state tourney, lost pitchers Morgan Crawford and Allison Wallin but returns a strong lineup that includes Haley Sandridge and Kiera and Ciera Foster.