Northeast softball looks to new season

Northeast Mississippi Community College’s softball team enters the 2011 season with a newfound focus and a new dedication toward its ultimate goal.
 “It’s a new day,” said Northeast head softball coach Jody Long, “a new demeanor.”
 Northeast’s will rely greatly on its new demeanor after the Lady Tigers failed to qualify for the postseason for the first time since switching to fast-pitch competition at the turn of the century.
 With the new demeanor came a renewed focus for Long and the Lady Tigers, who hope to turn last season into an asterisk on the program’s stellar career.
“Overall, this team has a lot more personality than last year’s did,” Long said. “Last year’s team took on a personality that wasn’t conducive to what we want to accomplish here.”
 Long has cleared the deck of everything that reminds the Lady Tigers of last season and only has six players returning from the 2010 team, thus meaning the 2011 team is freshman-laden.
“Hopefully this year will prove that through our roster and competitive schedule that we can be successful again,” Long said.
 A freshman-loaded team is not what Long was looking for when the Mississippi Association of Community and Junior Colleges (MACJC) took away fall ball leaving the young Lady Tiger team to find ingenious ways of coming up with ways to improve.
 “It has been a unique fall with not being able to play any games,” Long said. “We are going to be young on the field but I feel our talent and competition level have improved and the girls are starting to buy into what we want to get done here.”
Three players that have bought into the Lady Tigers’ philosophy is Northeast’s all-freshman pitching staff.
For the second time since Josie Lindgrin and Jocelyn McGolrick – both Canadians – toed the rubber for the Lady Tigers in their National Tournament bound year of 2003, Northeast will be without a local pitcher on the mound.
Northeast’s pitchers span the United States as Jaisa Fox comes in from Cincinnati, Ohio, Haley Wright hails from Orlando, Fla., and Jazmin Smith makes the longest trek flying in from Anchorage, Alaska, to give the Lady Tiger pitching staff its added boost.
“With the fall like it is with no game it is going to be tough,” Long said. “I plan on getting in as many innings as we can early on. We may drop back to pitching by committee with one pitcher pitching the first two innings, another innings three and four and another five, six and seven.”
One thing missing from that out-of-state line-up is a dominant pitcher that can overpower batters in the MACJC.
“We are going to have to do a good job of throwing strikes and making plays behind them,” Long said. “We aren’t going to waste a lot of pitches this year. They are going to throw with a purpose and we want to get ahead.”
Long is planning on using his pitchers as precision aces against the batters in the MACJC and the veteran mentor is relying upon the skill of his pitchers to make the difference.
“We are going to make a living this year of going north and south and changing speeds this year,” Long said.
With three freshman pitchers on the mound, leadership is going to be critical and that’s where sophomore Leslie Hendrix comes into play.
Hendrix returns behind the plate for the Lady Tigers and serves as one of Northeast’s team captains along with Kelle West.
However, while Hendrix returns behind the plate and brings vocal leadership to the Lady Tigers, Northeast has a pair of freshmen vying for playing time and one carries a rarity in the game.
“We have had good competition from our freshmen,” Long said. “We have the potential to have Katie Beth Dahlem catching and she is one of the rare left-handed catchers.”
Also pushing Hendrix for playing time behind the plate is Nicki Whitten, who caught during her prep career but will also see time in the middle of the Lady Tiger infield.
Hendrix returns behind the plate as one of three sophomores that saw substantial playing time for the Lady Tigers in 2010.
West, who serves as the other team captain for 2011, steps back in at the hot corner for the Lady Tigers and Taylor Moore picked up considerable time in the middle of the Northeast infield during the 2010 season.
Paige Smith staffed first for the Lady Tigers during the 2010 season but moved to the outfield because of her speed.
Robin Franks and Molly Lambert round out the quintet of sophomores returning for Long this year. Franks contributed in both the infield and outfield for the Lady Tigers while Lambert also saw time behind the plate.
But with a freshman-laden team, Long knows that there will be times that the Lady Tigers will be young on the field.
“We may have nine freshmen on the field at the same time during the spring,” Long said.
Included in the freshman are a pair of first-year players that are contending for the starting nod at first base. Hannah Hastings and Kelsie Follin are battling it out for the start at first and according to Long, “it will come down to those early tournaments and who will help us more offensively.”
In the middle of the Lady Tiger infield, Moore returns as does the Booneville duo of Raleigh Downs and Whitten who were a double-play combination for the Lady Blue Devils in high school.
West continues over at the hot corner but Brittany Minton is pushing West and Fox is also slated to see time at third when not on the mound.
Northeast’s outfield is where Long feels the strongest part of his defense lies.
“Our outfield is what I feel the best about,” Long said. “We have six players that are competing for time and four freshmen who are as good or better speed wise than anyone in the state or conference.”
Freshmen Madeline Hickman, Kim Jumper, Claire Wilkerson and Haley Knepp are slated to give sophomores Paige Smith and Franks a run for playing time in the outfield.
“With their speed, a ball should never drop in the outfield,” Long said. “They should be fighting over who is going to catch it.”
At the plate, Long is changing up the Lady Tigers normal modus operandi that includes capitalizing on Northeast’s abundance of speed.
“We are going to do more bunting and running, hitting and running and squeezing,” Long said. “We are going to do a lot of things that put pressure on the other team’s defense.”
All of that fits into Long’s “Big Four Package” of defense, offense, pitching and base running however, the veteran coach knows that even with a quicker team, power is still needed in the increasingly competitive North Division.
“We aren’t going to win games 1-0,” Long said. “We are going to have to score some runs.”
Scoring will be paramount for the Lady Tigers as Northeast opens the season with a monsterous task.
Northeast had hoped to open its season against Blue Mountain College, a four-year school that also recruits from the Lady Tigers district, but Mother Nature had other plans forcing the Lady Tigers to postpone the match-up with Blue Mountain twice.
Now, Northeast heads into the season with three straight tournaments including a season-opening game against defending National Junior College Athletic Association’s (NJCAA) Division II national champion Muskegon Community College in the Northwest-Shoals (Ala.) Patriot Bash on Friday, February 11.
Northeast doesn’t get a break from action as the Lady Tigers hit North Division play straight out of the season-opening tournaments.
“Three straight tournaments will give us about 15 games,” Long said. “Our regular season opener is also our North Division opener at Mississippi Delta on Wednesday, March 2.
“It’s going to be a strange year because we play Delta, East Mississippi and Northwest all before Spring Break,” Long said. “I remember a time where we didn’t start North Division play until after Spring Break.”
North Division play starts quickly for the Lady Tigers and Long hopes that his team is ready for the challenge.
“The league has really improved over the last few years and that’s evident by the number of different teams represented in the national tournament,” Long said. “It’s going to be a battle just to get in again.”