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Rick Thompson remembers how quiet the bus ride from Central Hardin back to Fort Knox was last season after the Lady Eagles lost to John Hardin in the 17th District Tournament quarterfinal.
Fort Knox couldn’t hold on to a 14-6 lead and wound up losing, 17-16 in one of the wildest district tournament games in history.
“That game last year against John Hardin was a heartbreaker,” Thompson said. “Things just fell apart at the end. We were playing well in that game and all of a sudden, the wheels fell off.”
If the Lady Eagles are to take the next step, Thompson said they must make it to the semifinals this season.
“We have to get past the first round. I really think that. But ask me later this season,” the 19th-year coach said. “Right now, we just want to get better and continue to get better as the season goes on. If they continue to get better and understand the mechanics of the game, we as a team will get better.”
Thompson believes this year will be different for his team. With six returning players, the Lady Eagles have some experience to build on.
Back are seniors Demyja Holmes, Bianca Kelley and Ashlee Kohler, juniors Heather Arthur and Christina Rice and eighth-grader Taylor Stephenson.
“It’s a great group to build around,” Thompson said. “They’re solid. They all have strong arms and good attitudes.”
And Thompson said all six have improved immensely over last season, especially Stephenson.
In her first season in the circle, Stephenson struggled with her control. But Thompson said Stephenson has spent several Sunday mornings in the offseason attending lessons each week, looking to improve.
Thompson certainly can tell a difference.
“She is excited for this season,” he said. “Taylor is a strong girl. She’s a good leader as an eighth-grader, and she’s pretty tough. She had never pitched before last season. I started working with her a little bit and she started picking it up. We knew she had potential.”
But unlike last season, the Lady Eagles will have other pitching options in Kohler and eighth-graders Casey Doerer and Candace Nathan.
Outside of pitching and one outfield spot which will be occupied by Kelley, Thompson doesn’t have his starting lineup set yet.
That doesn’t mean Thompson isn’t looking forward to the season.
“We want to get to another level,” he said. “I’m excited about this team. At this point of the season, we are a better team than we were at the start of last season. This team could probably beat last year’s team. Time will tell. If the potential shines and shows through, I think we could probably be a team that people will enjoy watching play.”
Also unlike last season, Thompson said the majority of his players have some level of experience in the sport.
New players who could have an impact are senior Tatiana Wynder, junior Rayghan McConnell and sophomores Michaela Nunley, Brenna Stephenson and Alexandria Stewart.
“The girls who are coming in have played some softball and have some experience,” Thompson said. “Everyone that’s out here has played some type of softball, and that’s huge for us. It’s not like in years past when we didn’t have very much experience. I love this group. They have a lot of energy. I’m pretty excited about they can bring to the table.”
There’s one big difference this season: For the first time in seven seasons, Breezy Jackson will not be in uniform.
But Thompson compared his situation to the movie “Moneyball,” when Oakland general manager Billy Beane built the A’s into a contender by signing several players to replace stars who left for other teams.
“I thought I would miss her to death, and I do because she was family,” he said. “As far as her presence on the team, you miss it because it’s so strong, but everyone else has picked it up. If we can get other people to pick up their game, all the stats will fall into place because everyone is doing it.”
Josh Claywell can be reached at (270) 505-1752 or email@example.com.