JACKSON County’s softball coaches won’t spend too much time talking to their players about getting to Columbus — annual site of the state Elite Eight.
Still, they may remind their team how last season ended — losing a deciding game three in a Sweet 16 series against Ringgold to miss out on the quarterfinals — to fuel their motivation this fall.
“I really feel like we weren’t ready for our season to be over,” said fourth-year coach Chessie Laird. “So that’s something just in passing that we may mention at practice. ‘Remember how this felt?’”
Jackson County, 24-11 a year ago, certainly returns a roster that could make a push for Columbus.
Though it graduated a prolific player in Mason Garland, the team welcomes back six hitters that batted better than .300 last year: shortstop Shelton Kendrix (.330 average last year, two homers, 26 RBIs), third baseman Madi Pecht (.387, 20 steals), second baseman Peyton Sorrells (320, 19 RBIs), first baseman Jessica Baker (.312, 19 RBIs), outfielder-infielder Alyssa Dasher (.343, 11 RBIs, 20 steals) and center fielder Destiny Gaudlock (.316). And Jackson County is as well-stocked in the pitchers’ circle as anybody with the Panthers returning three starters who finished with ERAs of 2.00 or better last year — Baker (9-2, 1.66 ERA), Kendrix (6-2, 1.69 ERA) and Sorrells (9-7, 2.00 ERA).
Laird points out that this entire group has played a lot of softball together.
“Just having those types of players who have been there and have that experience is important for us, especially when we play in the region we do,” said Laird, whose team advanced to Columbus back in 2012.
Then there are other intangibles. This is a hard-working group that doesn’t mind diving for balls in practice and getting its jerseys dirty, according to the coach.
“As a whole package, this group — just put them on the field and they’ll play,” Laird said. “That’s what’s most important and that’s what we love about this group. They’ve very tenacious.”
The Panthers again face a tough schedule to prepare for postseason with three high-caliber regular season tournaments against Class AAAAA and Class AAAAAA competition on the schedule.
“That’s going to be a trial all in its own to see where we stand conditioning-wise, but I think with this group, they’re used to that,” Laird said.
The region slate will be a grind as well. North Oconee and Franklin County moved out of Region 8-AAA, but Jefferson — a Sweet 16 team in Class AAA in 2013 — joins the fold. Jackson County will also contend with programs like Oconee County, an Elite Eight team from last year, and Morgan County, which advanced to the Sweet 16.
But Laird feels her team is up for the challenge, having experience and familiarity on its side.
“It’s kind of a special year because I feel like they’ve all played together since they were in Little League so it’s kind of a good sisterhood group,” Laird said. “They all trust each other, and that’s what’s important.”