Madison County might possess one of the best softball teams in the region but will need to avoid the injury bug this year like it’s the swine flu.
The Raiders, 24-11 in 2008, remain largely intact from last season, but dress just slightly over a dozen varsity players. That leaves little room for injury.
“Our key, I guess more so this year than in the past, is just staying healthy,” 12th-year coach Doug Kesler stressed. “We’re only going to dress 14 kids on the varsity.”
Madison County opens up Monday against Heritage with many of last year’s faces taking the field.
In the infield, four-year starter Katie Bolin (catcher) and second-year starter Olivia Duncan (second base) return to familiar territory, but Brandi Osborne moves from first to third, Abby Atkinson shifts to shortstop and Elizabeth Whieldon takes over at first. Renee Ellisor is working as a back-up catcher.
In the outfield, Sam LaZear is penciled in to start in center, but Timia Skelton, Haley Peeples and Ariel Bates are battling for the remaining two outfield slots.
“We feel like we were going to be pretty good defensively,” Kesler said. “We ought to be strong up the middle. You always look to be strong up the middle.”
Madison County should also be formidable from the mound where the Raiders return all pitchers, except for Megan Kesler.
Erin Gibson, the likely opening-day starter, is joined by Sarah Smith, Cortney Boggs and Emily Mann on the Raider staff. Offensively, Madison County welcomes back most of last year’s lineup — one that produced 11 run-rule shortened victories — as it looks to contend for a division title.
“It’s all about timely hitting, being able to perform with a little pressure on you,” Kesler said. “That’s what it’s all about.”
As for the competition, the Raiders finished second last year in 8A-AAAA and should find themselves in a three-way fight again this year with Apalachee and Habersham Central for the division crown.
On the other side of the region, Loganville — armed with one of the state’s best pitchers — and Heritage will battle for first place.
The Raiders enter 2009 coming off one of their best — and perhaps most important — campaigns in recent years.
It’s not as though the Madison County softball program broke a major drought last year, but Raiders did end a two-year postseason hiatus with last year’s trip to the sectionals.
And if momentum of one season can swing to the next, it’s showing up on the Raider practice field. The team’s preseason goals include a state quarterfinals trip to Columbus come late October.
So the outlook is promising — provided everyone stays healthy.
“They’re excited,” Kesler said. “They’ve got their sights set on Columbus. That’s what their goal is. They want to be in Columbus playing in that next-to-last weekend in October.”
The stakes are perhaps higher this year than ever to win a division title.
The top seeds on each side of the region host two games of the region tournament. The top seed from the north subregion (Madison County’s subregion) then hosts the remaining rounds
Region teams who then advance out of the 8-AAAA tournament face a much different path through the state playoffs. Gone are the state sectionals, which have been replaced with best-of-three series at the higher seed’s home field for the first two rounds (similar to baseball). The old format then returns for the quarterfinals, where the top eight teams trek to Columbus to determine the state champion.
Kesler didn’t mind changing the format for the first round, but wanted to at least keep the sectional format in the second round. Having several teams at one spot at sectionals drew several college coaches, he said, which meant more exposure for players.
“I don’t think it gives our players as much exposure, and I don’t like it for that reason,” Kesler said.