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Following her breakthrough season last year, longtime Meade County coach Mike Harreld believes opposing teams will do anything to take junior shortstop Ashley Nikolao away from the Lady Waves.
Nikolao is the reigning News-Enterprise Player of the Year and was voted in February as the 3rd Region Preseason Player of the Year.
Harreld has every reason to believe teams won’t pitch to Nikolao, who he’s said is one of the best players he’s ever coached.
“I expect her to get even better, but I think she’ll have a harder time getting at-bats with people walking her,” Harreld said. “I think teams will try and pitch around her. … Some of the people that are hitting in front of and behind Nikolao will have to hit well.”
And with this being his youngest team, Harreld is a bit worried about putting that much pressure on his players.
Along with Nikolao, senior catcher Megan Aebersold, junior center fielder Chaselyn Algeier and sophomore second baseman Elissa Youart are the only returning players who saw extensive playing time last season.
“Outside of those four, we’re very, very young,” Harreld said. “It’s going to be the youngest team we’ve ever had. We’ll probably make some youth mistakes defensively when people start putting pressure on us. But I think we’ve got some talent in our younger kids. I don’t think we’re hurting for anything.”
The other starting spots will be anchored by young players who Harreld said have tons of potential.
Sophomores Maddi Tabor and Riley Wilson are vying for time at first base. Wilson is also competing with freshman Rachel Ayer to start at third. Ayer can also be counted on to give Aebersold a break behind the plate.
“Both have played third base very well,” Harreld said. “Ayer is probably a little quicker and ahs a stronger arm. Wilson is probably better under pressure. We’ve got some versatility there too.”
Left field is up for grabs between sophomores Neeli Rhoades and Josie Board and freshman Katie Wilson, while sophomore Madison Haynes could start in right.
Meade County lost its top two pitchers in Brittany Lancaster and Amanda Logsdon – both of whom started for three seasons.
Taking over for that duo will be junior Sarah Greer, Rhoades and freshman Abby Whelan. Greer saw the most playing time last season, while Rhoades and Whelan only got to pitch in a few games.
“Abby throws the ball pretty well and has a lot of movement. Neeli is really consistent around the plate, and Sarah has some experience pitching for us. She’s won some games on the JV level,” Harreld said. “If a team goes to hitting one pitcher, the more pitchers you have to go to, the better off you are. If a team has one pitcher they like, you can put in one they don’t like. Some teams can hit a slower pitcher and not the faster one.”
With several young players, Harreld knows his team will find itself in several pressure-filled situations. But he thinks they’ll better handle that pressure as the season goes along.
“It’s kind of nice to have the youth,” Harreld said. “Teams that like to put pressure on you in different situations will really get to us. Because of their talent, I think they’re going to get better at handling it.”
Nikolao’s leadership should help. Harreld said Nikolao typically stays an hour after practice fielding ground balls from assistant coach Belinda Ledford.
Harreld said that attitude has started rubbing off on his younger players, who have taken after Nikolao and are staying late after practice to fine-tune their skills.
“She’s not just fielding them; she’s diving after them,” Harreld said. “The younger kids see her out there and they start sticking around after practice. Not only is she fantastic at playing, but she leads in the right direction and shows people how to get better.”
Josh Claywell can be reached at (270) 505-1752 or firstname.lastname@example.org.