While he may not have the same scowl or monotone delivery, West Forsyth softball coach Justin Rickett recalls the words of one of the greatest NFL head coaches of all time when looking back at the 2017 season, a year that did not live up to expectations for he and his squad.
“It's sort of like (what) Bill Belichick says,” he said. “’That was last year's team. This is this year's team.’”
It’s probably easy for him and the rest of the Wolverines to have those blinders on this year. After all, even though West did not have the year they were expecting, the pieces are in place for a resurgence in 2018, with nine seniors returning and a few standout newcomers joining the fold.
"They've all played a lot since they've been here,” Rickett said. “Some of them have been playing since they were freshmen, so it’s a wealth of experience you're not always blessed with. But you've still got to go out there and play the games."
West finished 9-16 overall and 6-9 in the Region 5-7A in 2017, missing the playoffs entirely in a major step back from being at the doorstep of the state championships the year before. A four-game region losing streak in September severely hurt their chances, and although the Wolverines recovered a little bit down the stretch, it was not enough to make up for lost ground.
“I think there was a time last year where we were trying to figure out exactly where we stand in this and where the roles (were) going to fall and who's going to take charge,” Rickett said. “I hope by the end of the year we were figuring some things out.”
One aspect of last season that the Wolverines hope to have figured out is getting runs across the plate. West scored the second-least amount of runs of anyone in the region, with only Milton trailing behind them. All-county first baseman Kelsey Schell will return as a big power threat, as will a large chunk of last year's lineup. With another year under their belt, they’re quickly learning from their mistakes.
“We didn't make adjustments last year after seeing pitchers multiple times as batters,” Schell said. “We really need to do that.”
Another problem West faced last year was faulty defense. Misplaying seemingly simple balls was continually an issue throughout the season, and it’s something that Rickett believes his team underachieved on.
“I'm a firm believer in, 'You've got to make the routine plays,'” he said. “Great plays are great – let's make the routine plays and let the great plays happen when they need to happen."
One of the biggest reasons for Rickett’s optimism regarding this year’s defense pertains to senior catcher Emily Kraft, who is committed to play in college at Mars Hill.
“She's figuring out how to run the defense,” Rickett said. “I don't have to worry about when the ball's out in play (or) them understanding where to go with the ball. She knows where to tell them to go with the ball. She's familiar with the system, and that's a big deal.”
If West is to complete its bounce-back year, it will start with pitching. The Wolverines’ staff looks to be a very solid one, led by Hannah Guthrie, the team's ace last year. Avery Wassilchak will join her in the rotation, as will a new face – senior Madison Michael, a Tusculum College commit. She’s a transfer from Cox Mill High School in Concord, NC, where she recorded a 1.94 ERA over 296 innings during her junior year.
"She's really good,” Guthrie said. “We complement each other really well because I'm more of an up-down pitcher and she's more side-to-side. I think having another pitcher will be really helpful to have some more depth if we go deep into the playoffs, or even if we go to state.”
While having three good arms to work with is a great problem to have, Rickett still has to figure out the logistics of how everything will work together.
“For so many years here, we've had one pitcher, two at the
most,” he said. “We're sort of treading in some new, unfamiliar waters,
figuring out how to keep them fresh and keep them in games. How that's going to
work, I'm not 100 percent sure yet."
With recent region powers like Lambert and South having to make significant replacements, the door is wide open for West to take the crown. But as Rickett likes to remind his team, the game isn’t played on paper.
"We have a really big senior class and I think we have a lot of opportunity to maybe make it to Columbus,” Schell said. “We better make a statement. We don't have any excuses.”