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WCHS softball ready to get started

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Winning big games has been a theme during the 2020-21 school year for Warren County High School. It may feel like a recent trend for football and basketball, but for the Lady Pioneer softball team – which is about to embark on its season – collecting trophies and hanging banners has been happening for years.

When the Lady Pioneers step on the field for opening day Monday, March 15, they will still technically be the defending Region 3AAA champions. The last time Warren County completed a full season, the team went all the way to substate, cementing a three-year run that also included two district championships.

Coach Gooby Martin knows many of the players who helped lead the program to its first region championship are now playing in college, but he hasn’t lowered the bar for his Lady Pioneers.

“Our goal is always to be playing our best by the postseason,” said Martin, who has led the program since 2015. “It could take some time for us to gel and find the right nine, but we have some talented girls who have been in big games. We’re always going to fight.”

Seniors Elia Atterson and Rhealee Johnson, along with junior Madison Hollis, return to anchor the squad. All three were on the field when Warren County took down Walker Valley and Ooltewah back in 2019 to win the region. Atterson and Johnson also were starting in 2018 when the Lady Pioneers destroyed Cookeville to win the program’s first District 6AAA tournament title.

Rounding out the senior class are pitcher Sadie Simmons and outfielders Kadence Ledbetter, Kaydee Rains and Taylor Swan. Joining Hollis in the junior class are Halo Armstrong, Bella Cantrell, Aleya Esparza, Marli McBride and Shelby Roberts.

Those who will be seeing their first real action at the high school will be sophomores Dallis Melton, Alyssa Mosley, Cadi Todd and Jessie Young and freshmen Brooklyn Cope, Kora Forbes, Isabella Pennington and Jazlynn Ward.

Warren County starts its season Monday, March 15 at home against Coffee County.

Let’s taking a deeper dive into the program as the season nears:

Intersquad scrimmages setting the tone

With the TSSAA not allowing teams to have playdays or scrimmages before the season, coach Gooby Martin is doing the only other thing he knows to do - battling the Lady Pioneers vs. the Lady Pioneers.

Martin held his first intersquad scrimmage Thursday, with Team Gray edging Team Black 2-1 in a six-inning workout. Sadie Simmons and Madison Hollis pitched their Gray team to victory, throwing three innings each.

Simmons also helped her cause with two hits and one RBI, while Shelby Roberts added an RBI double. Cadi Todd also finished with two hits for Team Gray, while Hollis and Jazz Ward had one hit each.

Rhealee Johnson was the starter for Team Black and surrendered two runs on four hits while striking out four in three innings. Freshman Kora Forbes pitched three innings in relief, allowing three hits and no runs.

Johnson was the team's leader at the plate at well, finishing with two hits. Halo Armstrong added an RBI single, while Taylor Swan had the team's only other hit.

"I liked the way our pitchers competed and threw strikes," said coach Martin. "Our big hitters swung the bats well and we'll need that throughout the season." Warren County fans will get another look at the Lady Pioneers Saturday when they split up for another scrimmage. It is set to start at 1 p.m.

Who is in the circle?

Any player who has suited up for Gooby Martin has heard these words: “We’re going to play our best nine.” It sounds like a simple concept – and during their run of district and region domination, it was. Right now, it may take a little moving and shaking to figure out who those nine are and where they should be deployed.

Martin has used his first weeks of practice cross training several players at different positions, most notably Rhealee Johnson, Sadie Simmons and Madison Hollis. Those three are significant because they are the players most likely to eat up the majority – if not all – the innings in the circle this spring.

As a freshman, Hollis pitched the Lady Pioneers to a region championship in 2019. Most would think it would be simple to lean on her throughout the year and shuffle everybody else around, but she’s still recovering from a shoulder/arm injury that could limit her innings early.

Johnson is no stranger to the pressure of being handed the ball in big games. She also pitched the team to a title in her freshman year, getting multiple postseason starts during the team’s district title run in 2018.

Simmons doesn’t have the marquee win on her resume, but she’s been reliable in all of her starts over the last three years. She may also been the most logical choice to start while Hollis heals, as her presence in the circle settles the rest of the lineup.

When Johnson isn’t pitching, she’s likely the team’s starting third baseman. In the past, she’s made starts at third base and first base (the position she played when the team won the region in 2019). Hollis and Simmons are both rotating at first base, with the starter likely determined by which one is pitching that day.

While it’s going to be a juggling act to set the lineup behind them, Martin is comfortable knowing he has three veteran arms to throw at teams this spring.

“Sadie, Rhealee and Madison have all pitched in some big games for us. They can all get the job done,” said Martin.

Atterson solidified in the lineup

Elia Atterson will be a four-year starter for WCHS (Painted Barn Media)

Outside of the three pitchers – who are all also position players when they aren’t in the circle – senior Elia Atterson seems to be the only other Lady Pioneer seemingly cementing her name in the lineup at all times.

Atterson has been a starter since late in her freshman year when she was inserted into the lineup in the district tournament and started banging line drives off the fence in Sparta. She was the team’s starting centerfielder on the way to a region title in 2019 and was poised to hold down that role last year before COVID shut down the season after just four games.

While Atterson will likely spend most of her team in centerfield again this season, she has worked some in the infield in practice. Either way, it seems Atterson will be in the lineup – her career .354 batting average is hard to replace.

Swan among many OF options

Senior Taylor Swan could be a force in the Lady Pioneer OF (Painted Barn Media)

Taylor Swan knows what she does well on the softball diamond. She’s out there to track down fly balls.

Swan, who has already signed with Jackson State to continue her softball career, has shown the ability to be one of the team’s top defensive outfielders. She has good speed, excellent instincts and likely the second-most experience behind Atterson in the outfield at the varsity level.

What remains to be seen is if Swan can do it on the other side. She only has four career plate appearances in varsity games.

Senior Kaydee Rains and Kadence Ledbetter are also battling for starting spots, as are juniors Bella Cantrell and Marli McBride. All bring a different variety of skills, whether its speed, a good arm or being better at the plate.

Shelby Roberts could be a wild card for the team’s OF lineup. Roberts has played outfield in the past, but she’s also in the running to replace MaKenna Mason – now at Motlow – behind the plate. Junior Halo Armstrong could also catch for the Lady Pioneers.

Solidifying the middle infield

Alyssa Mosley was selected to an All-American squad this winter.

For years, coach Martin didn’t have to worry about who was going to be up the middle defensively – or hitting at the top of the order. Hailey Wood and Emily Mikkola formed a dynamic duo, with Wood winning District Player of the Year during her career and Mikkola being named Infielder of the Year twice.

With both in college now, the Lady Pioneers will need to break in a new shortstop and second baseman for this season.

In the few games last year, Aleya Esparza played shortstop for the Lady Pioneers (Calyn Damon, who graduated, was at second base). Esparza is still taking a lot of reps at shortstop during practice, as is sophomore Alyssa Mosley.

Esparza, a junior, has the edge in game experience due to her time on the diamond last year.

Mosley, on the other hand, is coming off an impressive summer of travel ball. Mosley was selected to play in the All-American Games in Orlando, an event she competed in over New Year’s weekend. Her team finished third.

It could work out that both are in the lineup. With second base open as well, the Lady Pioneers are going to need sure-handed infielders to get the job done.

Up and coming Lady Pioneers

Coach Martin has never been shy about playing young Lady Pioneers at the varsity level. It’s part of his “Best Nine” mantra – if a freshman is one of the best nine, they’ll be in the lineup.

This season, it feels like the Lady Pioneers have eight newcomers, even though the freshman class only has four players. The team’s four sophomores only had four games – and only one JV game – to immerse themselves into the group last spring.

It remains to be seen if any of the eight can make an instant impact.

Mosley, already mentioned, looks to be pushing for a starting spot. Cadi Todd, another sophomore, has positional versatility that could help her find a role. Sophomore Jessie Young and Dallis Melton are still battling for roles in the ever-shifting infield.

The freshman class features two players, Kora Forbes and Brooklyn Cope, who have pitched a lot of innings at WCMS. Forbes could get lots of JV work in the circle until Cope, currently with the Pioneerettes as they complete their season, suits up.

Jazlynn Ward could be the catcher of the future and Isabella Pennington is still getting back into softball after a winter playing on the basketball team.

Churning out college players

From left, Ashton Whiles, Emily Mikkola and Hailey Wood are in their second college seasons

Success has put the Lady Pioneer program on the radar of most colleges in the area. They have come calling several times over the last four years, picking up instant impact players along the way.

Currently, the Lady Pioneers have five former players performing at the next level and two more bound for college this fall.

Hailey Wood, Emily Mikkola and Ashton Whiles all stepped into starting positions last spring in college, though they barely had time to get settled before their freshman seasons were stopped. Now back on campus, Wood is starting for the University of the Cumberlands (currently on a 12-game winning streak), Mikkola is entrenched at third base for Tennessee Wesleyan and Whiles is still slamming the ball for Cumberland University.

MaKenna Mason and Lexie Chadwell are both teammates again at Motlow. Mason is starting for the Lady Bucks at catcher, while Chadwell is hoping to be back at first base soon. Chadwell underwent elbow surgery in the offseason and should be cleared to play in the next 1-2 weeks.

The Lady Pioneers will have another set of college teammates next season. Senior Rhealee Johnson has already signed to join Wood in Kentucky at the University of the Cumberlands. Wood and Johnson had several conversations after Johnson signed last month.

Taylor Swan is also heading to the next level, having signed with Jackson State before starting her senior year.

It’s likely the signings won’t stop anytime soon for Warren County either. Junior Madison Hollis has already garnered college interest and coach Gooby Martin believes there are several more on the roster who could make it to the next level, should they pursue playing in college.

Emily Mikkola and Hailey Wood faced off recently at the college level.

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