By Gene Phelps/NEMS Daily Journal
Houston may have lost its pitching ace, Haley Gravat, to graduation, but the Lady Hilltoppers have remained state championship contenders in fastpitch softball.
Houston beat Caledonia 6-3 on Friday to clinch the Division 4-4A championship and improve to 17-5 overall, with a 9-0 league worksheet. The defending state champion Lady Hilltoppers will enter the postseason as a top seed.
“Overall, we’ve had a really successful season,” said Keith Jernigan, whose team is 50-7 over the last two seasons. “I felt like we’d be pretty good this year.”
Gravat, the Journal’s 2012 Player of the Year, exited with a 108-23 career record that included a 1.20 ERA and 450 strikeouts. She was replaced in the circle by seniors Audi Dendy (9-3, 0.50 ERA) and Avery Springer (4-1).
“Audi has pitched really well,” Jernigan said. “She hits her spots and has a really good change-up. Avery has stepped in and pitched well, too.”
Junior shortstop Chelsea Gates leads the team with a .596 batting average. Sophomore Mary Kansas Sullivan has averaged .481 at the plate. Senior catcher Yasmeen Cooper and freshman Madeline Burdine have also played key roles in the team’s success.
This year’s team is batting .398, a whopping 66 points better than last year’s club.
“We’ve hit the ball well, better than last year,” Jernigan said. “We’ve had some girls step up and do a good job for us. We made some position changes and it took a little time for us to adjust.”
Playoffs start Friday
The postseason is scheduled to start Friday and Saturday with play-in series between No. 2 and No. 3 teams in divisions. The No. 1 teams receive a bye, which concerns Jernigan.
“Basically, you’re off a week,” he said. “Now, you’re practicing a week after playing every two or three days. It can put you in a lull.”
Jernigan hopes to schedule an MHSAA-approved practice game during the off period.
“From a positive standpoint, we can fine tune a lot of things in practice,” he said. “Also, you don’t risk injury and you can go scout.”