Youth leading to success

Published 11:41 pm Tuesday, March 13, 2012

Escambia County Lady Blue Devil Tristen Boothe steals third in the Lady Blue Devils’ win over Monroe County on March 5. The Lady Blue Devils start one junior with the rest of the team’s starters coming from freshman, sophomores and a seventh grader.

Success has not come easy for the Escambia County Lady Blue Devils softball team in years past, but for the 2012 season, the ball is rolling in the right direction following a 9-0 start and ninth place in the state rankings.

The No. 9 Lady Blue Devils won eight games last season in head coach Daryl Otwell’s first season, but that total was matched with a win over Monroe County on March 5 and surpassed with a 16-2 win at Hillcrest last Thursday.

Getting to this place was no easy task for the Lady Blue Devils, who had to open the season with two tough games against W.S. Neal where they stunned the Lady Eagles each time by one run.

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The work started immediately following the 2011 campaign when the Lady Devils began a weight lifting program, which pushed them constantly to improve themselves.

“I took a young group of girls in last year, and they got a little bit of experience,” Otwell said. “It really all started in May with the girls hitting the weight room three times a week. We started putting in hard work. Everything has been laid out and consistent since then. They know what to do in practice and in games because everything has been consistent. The consistency and work ethic they have put in has helped the ball fall in their direction.”

One area of concern for the Lady Blue Devils was their ability to swing the bat and connect for hits.

Earning extra-base hits mainly home runs really proved to be a problem for ECHS, but taking part in the weight lifting has helped each batter have more of a presence at the plate, Otwell said.

“Last year, we didn’t have but one or two total home runs,” he said. “Kaylee (Cox) has hit one over the fence already this season plus, we have had four inside the park home runs, which is something to look at because some of the fields those have come on are larger than normal fields. The weight lifting has definitely shown that it has worked.”

Making up the upper class for this year’s team are three seniors and one junior. The junior, Jasmine Ireland, is the lone starter of the group. The remaining starters include freshman, sophomores and a seventh grader in Lexi Daughtry.

Playing with such a young group has proved to be a test, but each time the Lady Blue Devils have risen to the occasion.

In every game mistakes are made, but in each of the nine wins, the Lady Blue Devils have overcome any pressure to win and most of their wins are by decisive margins.

“The young girls are going to make mistakes,” Otwell said. “The biggest test coming into this year is the pressure that we’d face in big games. Most teams that make the state playoffs turn to a senior that has started for four years to make the necessary plays. For our team, we rely on a freshman pitcher to make the right pitch or a seventh grade second baseman to make the play. We’ve one two one-run games against W.S. Neal, so the youth are playing well under pressure. I’ve been excited for them because when times get tough, they are responding to the pressure. They settled down and found ways to win.”

One commitment that Otwell needed was from his senior players.

The three oldest Lady Blue Devils do not start and split time playing in right field where Otwell needs their help.

As important as playing time is, the seniors have made the commitment to help their team win anyway possible, Otwell said.

“Obviously the seniors have not gotten the playing time that they would have liked,” he said. “Most of them are rotating in right field. The biggest thing about our seniors is that they are tired of losing, and they are willing to do whatever it takes to win. They have done everything I have asked them to do, which has made them really great teammates this season.”

Now, ECHS gets into its real tests with area games against UMS-Wright and Saraland. The Lady Blue Devils travel to Mobile today to take on the Lady Bulldogs of UMS-Wright.

A lot is riding on getting a win there, with a chance to be 2-0 and tied for first place with Saraland.

“Going into this game the big thing is keep doing what we are doing,” he said. “The confidence is important. Right now, the girls are winning, so they are happy, but you don’t want them getting to comfortable with that. UMS-Wright is a team that has been dominant in this area for a long time, so finding a way to win down there will be important.”

Finding an outlook for the rest of the season is something Otwell has looked to do following the start of the season.

Nearing halfway point, the Lady Blue Devils are sticking with the goals they set at the beginning of the season.

“Our big goal is to maintain a strong confidence in the young players,” he said. “When you are winning things are easier, but being able to bounce back from a loss is important. The big test will be how well our girls react should they lose a game. Looking towards the rest of the season, we are still going to fight to make that regional tournament.”