Change is in the air for the Unaka softball program, but the feeling is that things will remain the same in between the lines.
Former Lady Ranger player and assistant coach Carrie Stevens takes the reins as head coach of the Unaka Lady Rangers softball program in 2012 from retired legendary coach Ronnie Hicks.
“We still feel that we will have a strong program here,” said Stevens, a former first baseman under Hicks. “Expectations are always high here. We lost some power from last year, but from top to bottom we have a lot of speed on this team. We have speed at every position and if our pitchers come through we have the defense to cover a lot of ground.”
Unaka is coming off perhaps its best season in the programs history with a 30-8 final record, including playoff and tournament games. The Lady Rangers earned their 27th district championship, 23rd Region 1-A crown and got a victory in Murfreesboro at the Spring Fling last May.
The Lady Rangers defeated Trinity Christian Academy 7-6 before being knocked out by Grace Baptist, but the senior-laden squad had gained the elusive and much soughtafter win in the Fling for Hicks.
Unaka grads Jamie Andrews and Kat McInturff formed the Rangers battery for years and with often spectacular results. They will be hard to replace as will second baseman Chesnie Cox, and third baseman/ pitcher Lacey Huskins.
“Replacing the senior pitchers and catcher will be the biggest task,” Stevens said. “Jamie was a great pitcher here and Kat was one of our leaders. But right now Leslie Colbaugh looks good as a pitcher and we have a pretty good freshman, Taylor Dilks as well.”
The Rangers infield should line up from first to third: Senior Lynsey Buckles at first, sophomore Caitlyn Buckles at second base, Kassie Winters at shortstop and Madison Weaver will man third.
The outfield is loaded with speed to get balls in the gaps with sophomores Brandi Ensor, Autumn Bradshaw and Shanda Matheson in center field, left field and right field, respectively.
“We want to be able to cut doubles down to singles,” said Stevens. “That’s a big part of this game and I am not worried about the defense in the outfield. The hitting may be the thing that starts slow, but so far we have swung the bats well.
“I have a lot of young players who aren’t afraid to swing the bat. I just have to get them to swing at the right pitch. They tend to love the high stuff and you have to learn to lay off it.”
Behind the plate will be Jessie Matheson, backed up by freshman Lexi Perry, who may also see time in the outfield.
The Rangers have played some scrimmages this season and have looked good in wins over Sullivan Central and Rye Cove, Va. at the Winged Deer opening tournament.
The Rangers then played Elizabethton to a 13-13 slugfest on Tuesday evening a jamboree game which made the new coach proud.
“We fell behind by seven runs and came back,” Stevens said with a smile. “We were aggressive at the plate and took good cuts and waited for our pitch most of the time. Our pitching is a little rusty right now, we have to do a better job of throwing strikes.
“We have the defense behind them, they just have to let them make the plays. But, so far I am very pleased with how we have played.”
Stevens has some big shoes to fill on the Creek, but she is not intimidated by the task and will look to make her own mark and set her own standard.
“I feel like we will be able to play with anyone,” said Stevens. “I think that, but the players are the ones that have to believe it. Coaches can tell the players what to do and how to do it, but they are the ones that have to make it happen. That takes belief, in yourself and in your team. That has to come from them.”
The Lady Rangers play at home against Johnson County on Monday.