IT’S BEEN anything but a restful summer for new East Jackson softball coach Brent Howell, but that’s been a good thing.
The busy offseason afforded him time to get to know his players, start implementing his system and prep his Eagles for what expected to be an ultra-challenging Region 8-AAA slate. Included in the summer was an eight-game scrimmage schedule, which Howell said was very beneficial.
“Having coached against most of the girls for the last several years I knew a little bit about them coming in, but this summer has allowed me to get a better feel for the team,” said Howell, who spent several years as an assistant coach at Banks County. “I am confident about our team and I am looking forward to competing in 8-AAA this year.”
East Jackson, which went 7-15-1 a year ago, opens the season Tuesday at home against Cedar Shoals.
Heading into game one, there’s still plenty of competition for positions.
Howell didn’t specify any starters but said Alx Wheeler, Beth Doss, Emily Hollis, Ashlie Wuertley, Brittany Nolan and Arynn Baker are all in the running for spots in the infield.
In the outfield, Kristin Whitlock, Destiny McHann, Lauren Sanders, Arynn Baker, Sam Minish and Caitlin Brock are competing for those three spots.
Meanwhile, Emily Turner and Shelby Shipp are battling for playing time behind the plate.
In the pitcher’s circle, East Jackson returns a lot of experience with senior Taylor Nix, who Howell describes as a serious competitor.
“I have been very pleased with Taylor Nix this summer,” Howell said. “She has stepped into a leadership role and embraced it. She has worked hard and has shown continual improvement. She flat out competes every pitch.”
Brock, a sophomore, and freshman Jayden Bennett threw several innings this summer and will also factor into the pitching plans in some capacity.
Offensively, Howell expects contributions from the team’s juniors and seniors.
East Jackson’s small senior class comprises Nix and Wheeler, but Howell said the duo has set a great example and eased the transition process.
“They have been great so far,” Howell said. “They have accepted leadership roles and have pushed to get better each practice and summer games. They also have been a great help for the younger players transitioning into our program.”
Howell and his team will see how they stack up this year in a stout Region 8-AAA that just happens to include defending state champion Oconee County. The Warriors went 38-2 last year.
“I believe that EJCHS just came from a very tough region last year in 8-AA and we have moved into another tough region in 8-AAA,” Howell said. “Oconee will continue to reload from last year state championship team.”
Thrown into that mix are Jackson County, North Oconee and Franklin County — all of which won at least 20 games last year. Morgan County won 18 games last year as well.
“I believe 8-AAA will be a very solid softball region,” Howell said. “There will not be any games that anyone can take off. I believe it will come down to the end-of-the-season tournament before we know our top four in our region.”
Howell is not making any predictions about his team. Instead, he said the goal is simply to play well come postseason time.
“I have been instilling to the team that it’s not how you start but how we finish,” Howell said. “We want to be playing our best softball in the beginning of October at the region tournament and then continue into the state playoffs.”