One more out and maybe Lambert Lady Longhorns softball would have been in Columbus.
Ahead 2-1 in the seventh inning of Game 1 of the Class AAAAAA second round against Collins Hill, the Lady Longhorns had one out left to get to put them a game away from being one of the final eight teams to play in the GHSA Softball State Championships. Instead, Collins Hill hit a two-run home run to win 3-2, a deflating loss that led to a 13-2 mercy-rule loss in Game 2 in which Lambert committed eight errors.
Plenty has changed for the Lady Longhorns since then. Nine seniors graduated, including Kassie Howard, the 2013 Forsyth County Softball Player of the Year. Head coach Dana Corr resigned after Jamie Corr, her husband and Lambert’s baseball coach, was hired by Florida SouthWestern State College.
And yet the Lady Longhorns are still bolstered by last season’s near-miss in the state playoffs as it heads into this season with a new head coach and a cast of new talent.
“I think they had a chance to imagine what it’d be like to go down to Columbus,” Lambert former assistant-now-head coach Brooks Youngblood said. “I think that’s going to be a big driving factor for these seniors and some of the younger girls as well.”
“I think we can get just as far as we did last year,” senior shortstop Savannah Huffstetler said. “We lost a lot of people, but we’re filling it in. A lot of new people have to step up.”
The spotlight will be on the mound where Lambert has to replace Howard. She filled the role of ace pitcher in dominant fashion last season, going 23-4 with a 1.31 ERA while striking out 186 in 138 2/3 innings.
“A player like Kassie, you don’t replace her,” Youngblood said.
The void will be filled by senior Audrey Merrill, sophomore Marissa Guimbarda and freshman Kassidy Krupit. Merrill pitched mostly on junior varsity last season. Guimbarda saw most of her time at designated hitter and first base where she provided Lambert with a potent bat in the lineup. Krupit is brand new.
All of which leaves the Lady Longhorns with their most glaring question mark entering the season. But Youngblood and the rest of the team feel the trio can make up for their lack of experience with talent.
“They’re going to have to team up to get to where Kassie was,” senior Macy Stovall said. “But together they can be what Kassie was.”
“I think they’ll be fine,” Huffstetler said.
Their performance will be just one reminder of all the transition Lambert has endured this offseason. Howard was one in a group of nine seniors who helped the Lady Longhorns ascend to unprecedented heights for the program. Youngblood joined Dana Corr’s staff in 2011, and Lambert won 15 games that year. Last season, the Lady Longhorns went a program-best 30-5, won its first region championship and reached the second round of the state tournament for the first time in school history.
But gone is Howard, the staff ace. Gone is Berry signee Megan Whitlatch, arguably the team’s top hitter last season. Gone is Talladega College signees Jenny Barto, and Rachel Ross, the team’s dependable catcher, and on and on.
“They kind of built this program,” Youngblood said. “They were there from the beginning. So if it’s not replacing them on the field, it’s just replacing that leadership and the core group of girls that kind of built Lambert softball to what it is.”
Youngblood has been forced to reshuffle his infield. Stovall has moved from third base to catcher to replace Ross. Huffstetler, a University of Tennessee verbal commitment, has moved from second base to her natural position of shortstop to replace Whitlatch.
Despite all the attrition, Lambert still returns junior centerfielder and leadoff hitter Maddie Butz and junior Zoe Miller, a third-year starter who can play first base, third base and right field.
And even if Youngblood himself is another reminder of Lambert’s offseason evolution, he says it will only be in the title of his job and not the way the program operates.
“We don’t have to make changes and tear this thing down, because it’s gotten to a point where it’s a quality program,” Youngblood. “That’s a credit to [Dana].”