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Fast pitch fever
Forsyth squads prep for softball season
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Allye Ingram watches the infielders during a recent Forsyth Central High School softball practice. - photo by Emily Saunders
The stretch, the pitch, the crack of the bat — all typically associated with spring and summer. Around here, though, they can also reliably indicate that autumn is on the way, as high-school softball helps usher in the fall sports season.

Practices have been going strong around Forsyth County this week, with local teams doing all they can under a tightly-squeezed schedule to prepare for the season, which begins Friday.

Softball tryouts began Aug. 1, just two weeks before the start of the season. Those dates are mandated by the state, according to South Forsyth coach Ronnie Davis, the brief window making the time teams spend in pre-season practice even more critical.

Davis said he'll be using early games to just figure out who doesn't belong on his team before getting down to the nitty-gritty of zeroing in on his best players across the board.

Veteran leadership will be the key for the Lady War Eagles, he said.

"Our season is going to go as our seniors go and as they lead us," said Davis.

Senior Lakan Smith and sophomore Alexa Ditmar look like the War Eagles' top two options on the mound, while senior Devon Freas and junior Leanne Brooks will trade off behind the plate, with both also likely to see time in the infield.

Seniors Amelia Schmid and Andrea Cocco can both move around the infield, Davis said, with junior Courtney Clark likely to see time in center.

Davis lists several players as up and coming, including junior sisters Kathleen and Erin Rooney, who can both play infield and outfield, junior outfielder Jessica Mash, sophomore outfielder Madison Higginbotham and junior infielder Jenna Quinn.

Several of his players are versatile, Davis said, leaving his staff to find the best fit for all of them.

"We've got to figure out where they can play and where they can't play," he said.

South hosts Milton Friday afternoon before traveling to Roswell Saturday morning.

At North Forsyth, first-year coach Becky Cahill will rely on a middle lineup and infield filled with senior talent to lead the way.

Senior right-hander Lauren Williams and junior southpaw Mallory Swanson are Cahill's expected starters on the mound.

In the infield, seniors Courtney Wagoner, Williams and Chelsea Fernandez, along with juniors Lauren Velez, Quinn Johnson and Natalie Bennett and freshman Lauren Shaw, are all possible starters.

The outfield looks to revolve around juniors Swanson, Anna Kirkland, Jordan Bryant and Jenna Gravitt.
Senior Felicia Velez and junior Amber Johnson are in line to fill the designated hitter role.

Cahill, who is taking over the coaching role from her husband Jim, looks to her two pitchers, as well as Fernandez and Wagoner, to step up and lead the team, but she knows it will take more than performance from her veterans to make a run at a playoff spot.

"The younger players will need to contribute quickly in order for the Raiders to win in Region 7-AAAAA," she said.

The Lady Raiders start the season Friday and Saturday with five games in the Grayson Tournament, including matchups with Wesleyan, Mill Creek and the host Rams.

North and South could both have their hands full in region play. Four 7-AAAAA teams — Mill Creek, Peachtree Ridge, Collins Hill and North Gwinnett — are all in the top 10 of the preseason coaches poll.

Forsyth Central will take the field in Region 6-AAAA this year, dropping a classification after two seasons of 5A ball.

Coach Bill Richardson will look to junior Brittney Head to anchor the starting rotation, while using practices and early games to find more arms.

Returning in the field will be seniors Ginny Prince (first base), Nicole Shirley (second base), Taylor McDonnell (catcher/shortstop/outfield) and Jessica Anderson (outfield), as well as junior Lauren Head behind the plate.

Central's new home in Class AAAA won't be without its challenges — region opponent Marist is ranked No. 1 in the state in the preseason coaches poll — and Richardson knows nothing will come easy for his bunch.

"We hope the move to Region 6-AAAA will give us a chance to be more
successful, but we still have to improve in order to get where we want
to go," he said. "It will take a group effort in order to be successful."

Central starts the season at Peachtree Ridge Friday, taking on the host Lions and Gilmer County. The Lady Dawgs are home for three more games Saturday.

West Forsyth coach Byron Orr says his Lady Wolverines will look to improve on their 8-18 mark and 7-7 Region 7-AAA record from a year ago.

Junior Racheal Kirby and freshman Hannah Weldy are the top pitchers, while freshman Jesse Pearson has a shot at recording some innings on the mound for the varsity, Orr said.

Behind the plate will be sophomore Brittany Bellinger.

The infield will likely consist of sophomore McKenzie Sloan at first, junior Sloan Bunting at second, sophomore Haley Holder or junior Ashley Mims at short, and junior Hillary Keller at third.

Orr expects to play juniors Nikki Erdely (right), Emily Zabatakis (center) and Kelsie Fowler or Chelsea Wood (left) in the outfield.

Orr hopes his team can improve to the point of competing for a playoff spot, but he knows that he's dealing with a youth movement at the second-year program.

"We expect a lot from Sloan Bunting and Nikki Erdely to lead what is still a young team," the coach said.

The Lady Wolverines start play Aug. 18, playing host to North at 5:30 p.m.