Richard Stroud

Grove Sun

The 2010 season was a return to the glory days for Grove softball. The Lady Ridgerunners went 31-8 last season, returning to the state tournament for the first time since 2006.

Now the program is preparing to deal with another challenge, high expectations.

“Things are different,” head coach Jeremy Collins said. “Both our own expectations and the expectations of people around the state are higher for us. We should be in the top four in the rankings to start the season. People know who we are and who we’ve got coming back.”

The Lady Ridgerunners spent 2010 trying to climb back to the top. From 1995-2006 Grove advanced to the state championship game five times, winning in 1996 and 2000. Collins, in his first year as head coach last season, along with a core group consisting mainly of freshmen and sophomores, put the program back on the map, advancing to the state semifinals before falling to McAlester.

Leading the way back were a pair of sophomores, third baseman Taylor Dodson and pitcher Jesse Walker. Dodson led the team in batting average (.496), home runs (13) and RBIs (46). Walker won 22 games last season (check pitching stats) while striking out over 200 batters. Walker was also second on the team with 24 RBIs.

Also returning are shortstop Mason Jeffries and second baseman Ashleigh Tramel. Jeffries led the team with 10 doubles last season while Tramel was second on the team with a .386 batting average.

The lone senior on the squad who started last season was first baseman Andrea Gonzales, who hit .360 last year.

But even with all that experience returning in the infield, Collins and assistant coach Mandy Jones will have to find replacements in the outfield and at catcher.

“We lost four position players who had a lot of experience,” Collins said. “Gregorye Epperson was a three-year starter. Shae Scott and Katelin Threet each played three years and started two of those years. We’re losing some experience and replacing that experience, filling those voids, is going to determine how quickly we meet expectations. It’s difficult for young kids to come in and know what it’s like to that pressure put on them early.”

Perhaps the biggest void the Lady Ridgerunners will have to fill is behind the plate, where four-year starter Katie Stout has moved on to play softball at NEO.

“She’s tough to replace,” Collins said. “Pitcher and catcher are the two most important positions in baseball and softball. Replacing her, finding someone to put behind the plate is a top priority.”

So far Collins has three candidates for the catching position. Gabi Fields, Megan Freeman and Tramel will all see time behind the plate in the early going.

“Coach Jones works with pitchers and catchers and we’ve gone back and forth on who to put back there,” Collins said. “We’re still trying to figure it out.”

The GHS coaching staff will also have to find a backup pitcher to spell Walker, a role Epperson filled with great success last season, winning nine games. Gonzales and Emilee Iverson have emerged as the leading candidates to fill that role.

“Gregorye did a great job last year in that role,” Collins said. “If they can fill that spot, that will help Jesse out a lot and help our team out a lot as well.”

Collins is also hoping for his team to improve in a couple of areas in order to take the final steps to a state championship.

“We definitely have to get better defensively. We’ve been together a year now and we know what to expect of each other now and what coverages we’re trying to run. Jesse’s a power pitcher and doesn’t allow a lot of balls to be put in play. But we’re going to be pitching more kids this year and we have to make routine plays.”

Collins would also like to see more consistency offensively from his team, scoring more often instead of relying on one or two big innings.

“Waiting on those big innings is hard on a coach,” Collins joked. “Our hitting has to be more consistent. We need to score runs in every inning and not just rely on the big inning.”

That may sound a little bit like nitpicking for a team that won 31 games last season, but for Collins and the Lady Ridgerunners, it’s merely a sign of the highest of expectations the team has for 2011.