By TONY EIERDAM
For the first time in four years, Lady Rams head coach David Tarver will go into a softball season not knowing what his opening day lineup will look like.
The Lady Rams lost key starters to graduation off of last year’s regional quarterfinalist team, including four-year letterman Chandler Ortiz and three-year letterman Reagan Patterson, perhaps the best catcher to ever play softball at MWHS.
In fact, the holes left by Chandler at second base and Patterson at catcher creates a huge void not only in the infield, but the batting order as well as both all-district, first-team players hit in the top part of the Lady Rams’ batting order.
The good news is the return of five starters – senior Bethany Allen, juniors Hope Patterson, Allie Stephens and Tabby Santibanez and sophomore Kelsey Keeton.
Returning players Addison Singleton, Anaiz Mendoza and Victoria Huffman will also add to the depth and they will challenge for starting spots.
Also vying for playing time will be sophomores Kaitlynn Brock, Jenny Seigler and Ashley Valdez, and freshman Airaca Graham.
But Tarver’s main concern will be how to replace Reagan Patterson. One of his options may sound unthinkable – moving first-team, all-state shortstop Allen to catcher and putting third baseman Hope Patterson at shortstop.
Thankfully for Tarver he has a few weeks of practice, four scrimmages, three tournaments and four other non-district games to figure out who his starters will be when District 6-3A play begins on March 11 at home against Castleberry.
The Lady Rams won the district championship in 2011 and have reached the third round of the playoffs the last two years with basically the same lineup.
“There are a lot of questions coming into this season,” Tarver said. “We lost a lot of girls to graduation who were key players on those three teams.
“We have had some younger girls step up in the last two years, but now we are in a situation where we do not know exactly who will be playing where.”
Tarver said although there are key holes to fill in the lineup, he does have plenty of options. It is just a matter of finding the best fits.
“We will have to play musical chairs throughout the scrimmages to find out what our best defensive lineup will be,” he said.
Tarver said he won’t be too quick to set a lineup and will take the time to see what players who can play multiple positions will play best in certain spots. He said the key defensively will be to focus on who plays best in the middle of the field – catcher, pitcher, shortstop and center field.
“This is a completely new team,” Tarver said. “We have several of the same players from last year, but the dynamic of this team is different. There will have to be some change to fit this group.”
The big question is what to do with three-time, all-district shortstop Allen, who as a sophomore was a first-team, all-state selection at the position. She has also captured two district Offensive Player of the Year awards.
“In softball, you have to be solid (defensively) up the middle, and it starts with the pitcher and catcher,” Tarver said.”If a girl gets on base and you can’t keep her off of second base, barring a base hit, you are in trouble.
“We need to make sure we are solid at catcher, but we would love to keep Bethany at shortstop and love to have a catching option to do so.
“We need a catcher who can throw out base runners, block pitches in the dirt and call a good game. If we can get that consistency out of someone other than Bethany that is definitely what we want to do.
“I need to see that in game action rather than just in practice.”
No matter where Allen plays one thing is for sure – for the fourth year in a row she will be the Lady Rams’ leadoff hitter. Allen hit an almost-unheard-of .635 for the entire 2011 season.
“Bethany has a consistent bat,” Tarver said. “We always expect her to get on base. When she is up I am always thinking about the next situation because I expect her to be on base.
“She is usually three for four or four for five and scores three or four runs a game. She is just a model of consistency, and she also hits for power. She is a hitting machine.”
Flexibility will also be the key for the Lady Rams, and Tarver has that with juniors Hope Patterson and Stephens, both of whom can play anywhere in the infield and pitch. Sophomore Kelsey Keeton will return to the circle, but when Hope Patterson or Stephens pitches Keeton can play first base.
“Hope and Allie bring the same element as BB (Allen), consistency,” Tarver explained. “They do not have many weaknesses, and we get production from them game in and game out. Kelsey is the same way.
“Hope and Allie both can play first and third and pitch, and Hope may play shortstop this year.”
Keeton made remarkable strides in her freshman year last season. With Stephens and Hope Patterson suffering injuries on and off throughout the 2013 season, Keeton did most of the pitching.
“That freshman year is always so scary for those on varsity, and last year Kelsey went straight to the circle because of injuries to Allie and Hope,”
Tarver said. “The onus went to Kelsey, a freshman, and she was a leader in the circle on our team. She handled it beautifully, and her pitching carried us three rounds into the playoffs.
“Kelsey carried us in the season when the others were hurt, and she had back troubles of her own but she pitched through it. She wanted the ball, and she has great location, hits her spots and moves the ball well.”
Offensively, in addition to Allen, a big load is expected to come from Hope Patterson, who was hampered with injuries last year. Hope is a threat to hit a home run every time she comes to the plate.
“Hope is a competitor, and she has a great swing and hits with a lot of power,” Tarver said. “Once she learns everything she can do within that swing she is going to be unstoppable.
“Every swing she takes has a chance to be a home run.”
Tarver said he put Graham on varsity, as a freshman, because he feels she could fill the void at second base.
“I have seen her grow up, and she has played on some good select teams,” he said.”We have a huge hole to fill at second base, and I feel Airaca has the background to adapt to playing on varsity at a young age.
“I think she can be a part of this group, and she can learn from everyone.”
Tarver said he will need all of the non-district games to find the right personnel to fill the openings.
“We are not solid in our lineup as the season begins,” he said. “We have a lot to figure out, and there are also a few players who I am looking at who are on that varsity/junior varsity bubble.
“I have to decide what players can come up and help us and what players need more seasoning on the JV. I won’t bring anyone up to varsity who won’t participate and contribute. In other words, I won’t bring someone up and have them sit the bench.
“I need these scrimmages to find out who we are and who we are going to start against Graham (in season opener Feb. 11 at Graham).”
When asked what the goal for the season is, Tarver said his answer may sound half-hearted.
“We are going to take the exact same approach as we did last year,” Tarver said. “We are only worried about tomorrow and the next game.
“That was our entire focus last year – win the next game. We will work as hard as we can to get to that game, and when we get to that game that will be our sole focus.”
That focused proved to be a winning strategy last season. Recall in the opening round of the playoffs, Graham defeated the Lady Rams, 10-1, in the first game of that best-of-3 bi-district playoff series. The next day in Mineral Wells, the Lady Rams won back-to-back games to capture the series and advance in the playoffs.
“That philosophy worked well for us last year,” Tarver reminded. “The pinnacle of last year had to be the Graham series. We got slaughtered in the first game, but because of our mentality of focusing on the next game we forgot about the first game and came back and won game two and then game three to take the series.
“It may be a bail-out answer, but it truly is what our intent is – what is up next and what do we have to do to win that next game.”