Hardball opens for Academy today

Published 7:51 pm Monday, February 26, 2007

By By Matthew Nascone
Lady Cougars look to stay competitive
After losing all but one starter from the 2006 squad, Keri Payne and the Escambia Academy Lady Cougars softball team will look to field a competitive team again in 2007.
Second baseman Rachel Ellis is the only returning starter from the team that posted a 12-7 record and lost in the AISA state semifinal game.
"We are slowly improving each day in practice," Payne said. "I have a lot of girls who are inexperienced this year, but that is what happens when you lose so many seniors. And I am trying to prepare them for what kind of year they will have. I don't want them to get discouraged. We are in a rebuilding year, but as long as we play good defense we should be able to be competitive."
The Lady Cougars lost eight seniors last year, and one of those was pitcher Stacey Gibbs. Payne said the loss of Gibbs and the other seniors has hurt.
"We have a bunch of girls who have not pitched on this level," Payne said. "But we are working with them to get them ready for the season. As long as we don't walk a lot of people I think we will be all right."
Payne said Talerie Singleton, Kayleigh Miller and Taylor Helton and Tori Searcy would see most of the action on the pitching mound this season.
"I am not worried about the speed right now," Payne said. "As long as they can get it in there and make our defense work that is all we are going for."
The experience may not be on the field for the Lady Cougars, but Payne said the work ethic is definitely there.
"These girls have been practicing hard and they are ready to work, Payne said. "And they want to try, so as long as they learn from their mistakes and move forward good things will happen. And they work together well. And I have a lot of good leadership from my senior girls."
When the Lady Cougars step to the plate, several girls will have to come up big for the team to succeed. Payne said Heather White, Rachel Ellis and Amber Huskey are three of the stronger hitters on the team. They will be the consistent run producers for the team.
The area play this year will be Jackson Academy, Wilcox Academy and Sparta Academy. Payne said her squad should be competitive in area play, but it will be outside of area play where the problems will arise.
But to help accommodate the girls with the pitching speed they will see, Payne brought in an outside source.
"Stacey has come back to pitch to our girls a couple days a week so they can see what kind of pitching they will see in the games," she said.
Payne said this may be a rebuilding year, but she is ready for her girls to have fun and play some softball.
The Lady Cougars open the season on the road tomorrow at Evangel Academy and the first pitch is set for 3:30 p.m. The team also plays Tuesday on the road at Fort Dale with a 3:30 p.m. first pitch.
Cougars ready for third straight Final Four
The Escambia Academy baseball team has made it to the AISA Final Four the previous two years and first-year head coach Jason Barnett said he wants to break into that championship game this year. Barnett and the baseball Cougars should have a decent shot at doing just that, with seven returning starters on the squad.
"We have a great group of guys this year," Barnett said.
Another positive for the 2007 squad is a pitching saturated lineup.
"I have seven pitchers I feel comfortable throwing at any time," Barnett said.
There are seven returning starters, but some of those starters will be playing at different positions this year compared to 2006. Ethan Brooks is moving from the outfield to first base. He will also return on the mound for the Cougars. Dustin Hall will move from the corners of the outfield to center field. Kevin Maher, Michael Mitchell and Kaweta Coon will fill out the outfield.
Starters staying where they were last year include, Joe Drew at catcher and pitcher, Cody Norton at shortstop and pitcher, Jon Dean at third base, Tyler Brown at second base and pitcher and Austin Eicher at pitcher.
"All these guys have a lot of baseball experience, but some of them just don't have the experience at the positions they are playing now," Barnett said.
Former head coach Floyd Adams, who won a national championship in 1994 as the head coach of the Jefferson Davis Community College baseball team, will be lending his assistance to Barnett and the EA team.
"Coach Adams is a great asset to our ball club and he has coached many individuals who have made it to professional baseball," Barnett said. "He has been a big help, more so than anything I could bring to the table."
The production on the offensive side of the ball will come from the senior leaders.
"I would have to start with Joe and Austin Eicher because those two will be in the three and four hole," Barnett said. "We will probably lead off with Dustin Hall as the leadoff again this year. We will figure out our No. 2 hitter based on the situation at hand. And Ethan Brooks will probably be in the five spot because he is hitting the baseball as good as anybody right now. And we will fill in the rest."
On the mound, Barnett said Drew, Brown and Norton will be the workhorses and Maher will get some work as the season opens.
Competition is never hard to come by in the AISA, Barnett said.
"Area is always tough and we have Faith Academy coming in here this year," he said. "They are always a talented, well-coached baseball team with Vince Skoda. And there is probably not anyone in high school baseball in this part of the world better than Skoda, so that will be tough. We have Cottage Hill and we have Monroe. We never know what Monroe will bring to the table."
The Cougars will only play one school out of Class 1A.
"We play a lot of games and there is no simulation for actual games," Barnett said. "Because you can sit here and simulate a game, but nothing can touch actually playing a game to see where your team is at. And we have a couple weeks before regional play begins, so we will go out there and see where we stand."
The season opens tomorrow at Evangel Academy. The first pitch is at 3:30 p.m. The Cougars also travel to Fort Dale Academy Tuesday with a start time of 3:30 p.m. as well.

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