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PREP SOFTBALL PREVIEW: LaRue's No. 1 task is fixing the defense (03/19)

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By Josh Claywell

Aaron Howell looks back on his second season at the helm of the LaRue County Lady Hawks and wonders what happened to his team’s defense.

The Lady Hawks committed more than 150 errors last season, finishing 14-22 and losing in the 5th Region Softball Tournament quarterfinals. After advancing to the region final in his first season, Howell was disappointed watching his team struggle last year.

If they want to get back among the region’s best teams, Howell said the Lady Hawks must first shore up their defense.

“Cutting down on those is going to be key for us, so we’ve worked a lot on defense this year,” Howell said. “Hopefully it’ll pan out and we’ll come around and play better defensively.”

Howell said a lot of the errors happened because the Lady Hawks weren’t playing relaxed. If a game got close or an opposing team rallied, the mistakes piled up.

“You make one mistake and you follow it up with another; it’s just a snowball effect,” he said. “If we can cut that out and play more relaxed and loose, I think we’ll be better off.”

Defense wasn’t the only thing that plagued the team.

LaRue County averaged 3.6 runs per game last season, and it was shut out in back-to-back postseason games by Green County in the 18th District final and Marion County in the region.

Combine that with the defensive issues and it made for one long season.

“It’s always frustrating to watch error after error, walk after walk and hit batters,” Howell said. “We struggled hitting the ball toward the end of the year. If all three of those things don’t go your way, it’s a recipe for disaster.”

But Howell believes the Lady Hawks have matured and will get things turned around this season.

They return all but two players from last season, and will be led by a quartet of upperclasswomen in senior Kayla Skaggs and juniors Peyton Gardner, Courtney Johnson and Brigitte Skaggs.

“Those four are the nucleus of the team,” Howell said. “They’re goal-oriented and they have their own personal goals they want to achieve this year, and that’s a good thing.”

The Skaggses return in the circle. They will also play first base when the other is pitching.

“They’ve both grown tremendously, leadership-wise more than anything,” Howell said. “That’s what I’m counting on from them, is to keep the team up when the chips get down and to stay positive.”

Johnson is in her fourth year as the starting third baseman, while Gardner starts in center field. Other returning players include sophomores Trishtian Cruse, Emillee Cundiff and Sierra Mullins, and freshmen Delany Eastridge, Haleigh Gregory, Jill Hughes, Mallory Skaggs and Shakeya Washington.

Cruise and Mullins both caught last season. Mullins will stay behind the plate, while Cruise takes over at shortstop.

Hughes will start in right field. Mallory Skaggs, Gregory and Eastridge will compete for time in left field. Washington could also see time in the outfield.

Cundiff also pitches, which Howell said will help the Lady Hawks.

“You can’t ever have enough pitching, period,” he said. “Each of them bring something different. Kayla has definitely improved over last year, and so has Emillee. And Brigitte brings something you can’t replace with her experience. She’s improved a lot over last year.”

For Howell, each new season brings a renewed hope. No matter how things went the previous season, the arrival of spring means a fresh start.

“When you’ve been coaching baseball and softball for 10 years, you look forward to this time of year,” Howell said. “They’ve experienced some success in the years I’ve been here, and hopefully we’ll continue that on this year and in years to come.

“The goal always is to win the region and make it to State,” he added. “If you ever decide that that’s not your goal, then it’s time to get out. That’s always been our goal, and I think we’re capable of doing it. It’s just a matter of us going out and doing it.”

Josh Claywell can be reached at (270) 505-1752 or jclaywell@thenewsenterprise.com.