The prep softball season is almost here once again, and there will be plenty of talented players taking the field in the next few weeks for the three local teams.

Calhoun, Sonoraville and Gordon Central all enter the 2018 season with high expectations and lots of experience returning for their respective squads.

The Lady Jackets are coming off an incredible season last fall that concluded with them hoisting the Class AAA State Championship trophy, their fourth title in the past five seasons. They improved as the season went on in 2017 and played their best softball down the stretch, including a 4-0 run at the Elite Eight in Columbus. They were led by a trio of three seniors in 2017, which means they have a ton of experience back this year, including pitchers Maggie McBrayer and Blair Hall catcher/infielder Lyndi Rae Davis, outfielders Carlie Henderson and Erin Barnes just to name a few. Veteran head coach Diane Smith has her team ready for another strong run in 2018 as her team aims to win its seventh straight region title and defend its state crown in Columbus.

Sonoraville also came on strong at the end of the season last year, marching through the first two rounds of the playoffs to earn their second-ever trip to Columbus for the Class AAA Elite Eight. Sonoraville head coach Chad Hayes has built his program into a perennial playoff contender and this year the expectations should be just as high as the Lady Phoenix return a lot of talent and experience. Leading the way is pitcher Kristen Davis, who enters her senior season looking for her best high school campaign yet. Catcher Sandra Beth Pritchett and third baseman Griffin Holden will also play a key role in Sonoraville’s success both at the plate and in the field. The Lady Phoenix have their sights set on making another run to Columbus in October, and they should have the ability to make it happen.

Gordon Central had a regime change this past offseason as Sara Broom was named the new head coach in the spring to take over for Maddie Monroe, who led the Lady Warriors the last three seasons. Broom is a familiar name to the program as she was previously the head coach at GC from 2008-2010, and she will look to turn things around and built the Lady Warriors into a more consistent team. Seniors Cara Crump and Morgan Frank will be asked to provide leadership as they are two of the most experienced players for what will be a very young roster. Broom said her team is aiming for consistent improvement throughout the season so only time will tell what they can accomplish in 2018.

The teams will all be on the diamond within the next couple weeks to open the regular season so below is all the info you need to know for each. Here’s some team info for Calhoun, Sonoraville and Gordon Central as well as some thoughts from each of the three head coaches:

CALHOUN

Head Coach: Diane Smith (33rd season)

Last Year’s Record: 30-8 (Won Region 6-AAA title, won Class AAA State title)

Key Players: Carlie Henderson (OF, Jr.), Maggie McBrayer (P, Soph.), Lyndi Rae Davis (C, Soph.), Blair Hall (P, Sr.), Erin Barnes (OF, Jr.), Audrey Wilbanks (SS, Sr.), Anna Taylor (2B, Sr.)

Coaches Questions:

CT: You’re coming off a state championship last season. How motivated are the girls to defend that title and how hard have they worked this offseason and preseason to give themselves a chance to do that?

SMITH: When a team begins a run of impressive accomplishments, the motivation is built in for upcoming seasons. This year’s team wants to keep the ball rolling and their involvement in training, practice and summer play indicates a strong desire to keep on being champions.

CT: How important is it to your team’s success to have two stellar pitchers back from last year in Maggie McBrayer and Blair Hall? Are there other pitchers that will provide even more depth this year behind those two?

SMITH: One cannot underestimate the value of two outstanding pitchers on a team returning from a state championship run. Of course, last year’s performance of freshman pitcher Maggie McBrayer, who pitched every pitch in the state tournament, wrote a story probably never entertained before. Junior Blair Hall’s emotional and physical status during the state tournament due to her father’s terminal illness presented a great obstacle to overcome. Having Blair back will be a positive of great significance. Not to be overlooked is rising senior Molly Walker who gives strength as a pitcher and hitter, and in the wings to add versatile strength to an overall already strong pitching staff is rising junior, Lona Sims.

CT: You are replacing three seniors from last year’s team, but you have a lot of experienced players coming back. Who are some players that are stepping up into that leadership role left by the senior trio from last year and who are a few players that you think are ready for a breakout season in 2018?

SMITH: Replacing caliber players such as right fielder Tori Roper, first baseman and power hitter Maddie Bumgardner and All-State catcher Adella Carver will not be an easy task. As we begin practice we are looking for our four seniors, Audrey Wilbanks, Anna Taylor, Molly Walker and Bailee Pullen, to step up and fill those roles. Shortstop Audrey Wilbanks and second baseman Anna Taylor do an outstanding job as two of the best midfielders in our region. Of course, there is sophomore and last year’s GACA Player of the Year catcher Lyndi Rae Davis. We will also return All-State center fielder and leading hitter junior Carlie Henderson, All-State left fielder Erin Barnes and experienced utility player Hannah Mashburn.

CT: Going into the season, what do you think the biggest strengths are for your team and what is an area or areas that you feel like it needs to improve in?

SMITH: Our biggest strength will be experience. We have traveled this road before and the “geography” is familiar to our players. As far as areas we need to improve in can best be answered by our play in the first few games. It is an open-ended question.

CT: What are your overall expectations for what the 2018 Lady Jackets can accomplish and how much confidence do you have that your team can reach its full potential?

SMITH: Expectations are high for each individual player as well as the team. We believe in each other and we all have the same goal in mind. We will climb to the top again because “Together We Swarm.”

SONORAVILLE

Head Coach: Chad Hayes (seventh season)

Last Year’s Record: 21-17 (Advanced to the Class AAA Elite Eight)

Key Players: Kristen Davis (P, Sr.), Griffin Holden (3B, Sr.), Sandra Beth Pritchett (C, Jr.), Payton Townsend (1B, Jr.), Karley Thomas (SS, Jr.)

Coaches Questions:

CT: You’re team went to the Elite Eight last season for the second time in program history. How driven are the girls to get back to Columbus this year and how hard have they been working to make that happen?

HAYES: The girls have been working hard. We have a lot of girls who play high-level travel ball, so they have been playing all summer against very good competition. We have had a very good turnout at our summer workouts, which always helps. I think the girls are ready to make another run.

CT: You’re ace pitcher Kristen Davis is back this year for her senior season. What kind of year are you expecting from her and which other pitchers are you expecting to provide some depth behind her?

HAYES: Kristen works very hard at her craft. She is always working. We expect a very big season from her. She will definitely carry the load in the circle. We expect another big offensive season out of her also. Senior Sarah-Anne Arthur and Freshman Taylor Long should provide us with some quality depth in the circle.

CT: You lost several seniors from last year’s team but also have several experienced players returning. Who are a few of those returnees that you will be leaning heavily on for production and leadership and who are a few players that you think will step up to be counted on for the first time in 2018?

HAYES: Outside of Kristen, we are looking for Sandra Beth to have a big season behind the plate and offensively. She is as good as anyone behind the dish. We expect Griffin Holden to have a big year offensively. She has battled some shoulder issues the last two season, but if she stays healthy she will do big things for us. We expect Payton Townsend to follow her excellent sophomore season with a big junior year. Junior Karley Thomas will most likely step in at shortstop and in the leadoff spot after playing second base last year.

CT: Going into the season, what do you think the biggest strengths are for your team and what is an area or areas that you feel like it needs to improve in?

HAYES: I think pitching is our biggest strength. We are going to have a lot of pop in the middle of the lineup as well. We need someone to step into the leadoff role and get on base, and we need some consistency at the bottom of the order. We should be strong in the middle of the defense. Our outfielders are an athletic group, but we need someone to step up and lead that group for us.

CT: What are your overall expectations for what the 2018 Lady Phoenix can accomplish and how much confidence do you have that your team can reach its full potential?

HAYES: I like this team a lot. If we can stay healthy and get a few players to step up, we should be in the thick of things for a region title and state title. That’s the expectation.

GORDON CENTRAL

Head Coach: Sara Broom (first season back, also coached 2008-2010)

Last Year’s Record: 3-18

Key Players: Cara Crump (SS, Sr.), Morgan Frank (P, Sr.), Sarah Crowder (3B, Fr.)

Coaches Questions:

CT: You’re heading into your first season back as head coach after serving in the same role from 2008-2010. How far along are your players into getting to know your coaching style and expectations of them and how important is it for the players to fully buy in to what you’re preaching to have success?

BROOM: The players have worked hard over the summer to learn the coaching styles of myself and our two assistant coaches. They have been open to try different techniques as well as trust instruction that we have been giving. It is extremely important that the players buy into what we as coaches are telling them. Each one of us bring a unique experience, and we are excited to share it with these young athletes.

CT: The team was very young last season with several underclassmen playing big roles. How much will that experience help them coming into this year and how confident are you that those returning players will take that next step into producing consistent results?

BROOM: We are extremely lucky this year to have a varsity team and a junior varsity team. With that being said, we have a very large underclassmen group. This is outstanding because we have a chance to start building our program. There will be ample opportunity for returners to play as well as the underclassmen to get in game situations.

CT: How hard has the girls been working in preseason practice the last couple weeks and how productive has that practice time been as you move into your first season back?

BROOM: The players have been working extremely hard during this past summer, and they have shown vast improvements. We are excited to see what this season holds for our girls.

CT: Going into the season, what do you think the biggest strengths are for your team and what is an area or areas that you feel like it needs to improve in?

BROOM: The biggest strength for our team is the ability to build chemistry because we are so young. The biggest weakness is learning how to handle pressure situations at this point. We are working on positive self-talk and thinking about what to do on the next play if a ball is hit to you.

CT: What are your overall expectations for what the 2018 Lady Warriors can accomplish and how much confidence do you have that your team can reach its full potential?

BROOM: My overall expectation is to see improvement in region play. I am very confident that this can happen if the players all put forth their best effort during practice time and game time.