Down Tribble Gap Road, across from Forsyth Central High School, the Lady Bulldogs softball field sits pristine, untarnished by bare spots in the outfield grass or weeds spoiling the infield dirt. Kaelin Farrington has made sure of that.
The Bulldogs have had non-mandatory practices every Monday and Wednesday this summer. Before each practice, Farrington had players spend five minutes pulling weeds and picking up rocks. It was their field, after all, and as a player and coach at the University of North Georgia, Farrington had to do the same.
"At North Georgia, I felt like I graduated with a field maintenance degree," Farrington said. "But when girls have to work on the field, they take pride in it. … I think it’s all a part of being part of a program."
It’s been a small part of the first-year coach’s effort to take Forsyth County’s surprise team last season and return it to a consistent winner.
Two seasons ago, Central won just three games. The season before, the Lady Bulldogs won just six. Last season, a combination of veteran leadership, emerging talent and a few precocious freshmen helped Central make a dramatic improvement. The Lady Bulldogs went 17-18, upset Kell and Sequoyah in the Region 7-AAAAA tournament and reached the second round of the state tournament for the first time since 1996 when it won a state championship.
Central had the luxury of catching teams by surprise. It beat Creekview, the eventual region runner-up, 2-0, in the teams’ only meeting. It went 3-2 in games decided by one run. It atoned for regular-season losses to Sequoyah (9-0) and Kell (5-4) with exciting victories in the region tournament.
"I think that’s why teams were so upset last season; we just kind of came out of nowhere," Central junior Caroline Thomas said. "It was cool to be a part of that."
Now, Central is preparing for a season without the luxury of anonymity. The Lady Bulldogs lost just three seniors, albeit significant ones, but return their top two pitchers in Thomas and junior Carrlyn Kiser, lead-off hitter and junior outfielder Lexi Bump, sophomore twins and infielders Alexa and Marisa Hull and Tennessee Tech commit Rachel Karlan.
"Now, everyone’s expecting [success] since we just made the second round," Bump said.
Much of Farrington’s approach this summer has been on fundamentals. Time is spent each practice on simple catching and throwing, a detail, Farrington said, that can be taken for granted with the amount girls play between high school and travel teams.
At practice Monday, the Lady Bulldogs began with a throwing competition. Girls lined up in rows of three or four across the outfield grass. They threw down the line, from one girl to the next, simulating cut-off throws. The first row to successfully get the ball from one end to the other three times – without a drop – sat down.
After three rounds, Farrington sent the outfielders to right field and the infielders to first base. She hit line drives to an outfielder, who threw to the cut-off at first.
"We’ve got to commit to the basics," Farrington said. "As soon as they show me they can catch and throw, we move on, which I think it hard for them. It seems very young, but that’s what we did at North Georgia. It’s just the basics that sometimes you like to get away from, but it’s something you have to do every single day."
As much as Central feels better equipped to compete in a competitive region and handle expectations for the first time in several seasons, it also acknowledges the work needed to be done this offseason to become a complete team. There are two starters to replace in the outfield, a starting catcher to settle on and two-thirds of a new coaching staff.
But the Lady Bulldogs find even more reasons – from the returning talent, to the experience gained by last season’s playoff run, to Farrington’s experience as a college pitcher aiding Thomas and Kiser on the mound – to think another appearance in the state tournament would be no surprise this season.
"This year’s going to be good," Kiser said. "I know it."