Besides turning the page on last year's 25-3 season which ended with an appearance in the Class 2A state quarterfinals, the Sterlington Lady Panthers are entering a new era altogether.
For the first time in nearly two decades, the Lady Panthers have a new coach. Boyd Cole retired in August after 18 years as the Lady Panthers' coach, a run which included the 2003 state championship and multiple State Tournament appearances.
Also gone are Caitlin Dupree, a fixture as the team's starting catcher for the past five years, and Alaina Johnson, the starting first baseman for the past two seasons.
Cole's successor, Jack Goode, has a solid track record in his own right. Goode spent the past five years at Class 4A West Ouachita, the past four as head coach. During Goode's tenure in Cadeville, the Lady Chiefs advanced to the State Tournament every year.
Any time there is a changing of the guard involving an established coach, a transition phase naturally follows for the players as well as the new coach.
“(A coaching change) can be a bad thing on kids, but I think they've embraced it,” Goode said. “They want to get to the next tier, the championship level.”
Goode hardly inherits a bare cupboard.
Pitcher/shortstop Sarah Gandy and third baseman Cassidy Brady, the reigning District 2-2A co-MVPs, enter their senior seasons as the centerpieces of the lineup.
Entering her sixth year as a starter, Gandy has earned first-team All-State honors following spectacular back-to-back all-around seasons. As a junior, she fashioned an 18-2 record with a 1.21 earned run average. Batting from the leadoff slot, she hit at a .516 clip and belted five home runs (four in the playoffs).
Brady, a Bossier Parish Community signee, is penciled into the cleanup spot in the batting order. Last year, she hit .595, including an .800 district average, with six home runs and 45 RBIs on her way to earning All-State recognition.
A third senior, Mallory Forbes returns in left field after earning All-District accolades last season.
Goode has high expectations for the seniors.
“I told our seniors, 'This is your year. This is your team,'” Goode said. “I challenge them to not necessarily be vocal leaders — a lot of times that can be dangerous — but to lead by example. I'm hard on the seniors. I hold them accountable for things that a freshman might just get talked to about. Our seniors want to win really, really bad and that's a good thing. They're willing to listen and make changes. They've done a great job.”
Another returning All-State honoree, junior Taylor Wilson will rotate with Gandy between shortstop and the circle. Wilson, who bats from the No. 3 slot, hit .545 and touched off a team-high eight home runs in 2012. As a pitcher, she won seven of her eight decisions.
Page 2 of 3 - Sophomore Hannah Harrell takes over for Dupree behind the plate. Goode said Harrell won the job based on her receiving skills.
“Hannah's fairly new to catching, but she has the receiving part down pretty good,” Goode said. “The receiving skills are the hardest part of catching to teach.”
Amber Knight (jr.) has settled in at first base after playing a utility role last season, while Alex McMorris (jr.) returns at second base.
Forbes is joined in the outfield by Avery Elkins (so.) in center. Junior Chelbi Johnson and Abi Taylor are the right fielders.
Elkins will bat second, with McMorris hitting fifth.
“We've been working on Avery's slapping,” Goode said. “Batting fifth, I look at Alex as kind of our second leadoff hitter. The second half of the lineup is going to have to be a second gear so to speak. We need to have them manufacture some runs, yet still be productive.”
Other candidates for action include sophomore pitcher/outfielder Morgan Davis, sophomore third baseman Morgan Edwards, freshman pitcher/outfielder Caroline Cooley and freshman catcher Haley Yarbrough.
Goode says he has emphasized situational play during preseason practice.
“The biggest thing we've been working on is situations,” Goode said. “I've been putting a lot of pressure on them, making them think about how to handle certain situations. They're starting to pick it up.”
Strangely, considering the relative proximity of the two schools, the Lady Chiefs and Lady Panthers never crossed paths during Goode's five years at West Ouachita. His first encounter with the Lady Panthers was his first team meeting.
“I've never seen any of them in a game situation before,” Goode said.
So far, Goode has liked what he has seen from the Lady Panthers during preseason camp.
“One thing I have seen is they have a good work ethic,” Goode said. “They're willing to listen and do what you ask them to do.”
Sterlington and West Ouachita scrimmaged Monday, with the Lady Chiefs squeezing out a 10-8 win.
“I was happy with the way we played. Our timing's a little off, but I think we'll hit the ball a lot better as the season goes on,” Goode said. “My number one goal was for us to come away with some confidence, which I think we did. They expect to win.”
Wins may be hard to come by early on as the Lady Panthers open the season against the likes of West Monroe, West Ouachita and Ouachita.
“We've really beefed up the schedule,” Goode said. “We may not be 25-2 or 25-3 or No. 1 or No. 2 in the state, but I'm not worried about the record. What I'm worried about is the last three games in Sulphur. I think the schedule is going to make a difference.”
Page 3 of 3 -