By Nick Snow
STILLWATER, Okla. —
New faces often bring a scowl of concern to Stillwater High School softball coach Amber Davis’ face. But two practices into the upcoming season Davis has been all smiles
Why? Easy. She sees the handwriting on the wall.
True, this year’s Lady Pioneers may be young — with only five returning players with any varsity experience — but it’s the combination of youth and speed that has Davis excited for the upcoming season.
“It kind of puts a little grin on my face because it’s nice to have both,” Davis said. “We’re very, very young. That’s not a bad problem. So far, it’s been so good. The mistakes that we’ve made have just been young mistakes and they’re all fixable, so that’s a good sign.”
Fixing errors is one thing. Fixing them in two weeks before the season starts is another. But it’s a challenge the Lady Pioneer coaching staff and the senior leaders came into this season prepared for.
“Each day, we see more and more talent coming out of the younger ones. It’s pretty great.” Stillwater senior Courtney Hughes said.
One of those young players who has already caught Davis by surprise? Sophomore third baseman Hailey McDaniel.
Replacing graduated third baseman Anna Fowler was a big concern for Davis when Stillwater’s season ended in heartbreaking fashion last year. Now, Davis feels that she not only found Fowler’s replacement defensively, but has also found another productive bat in Stillwater’s lineup.
“I’m really excited about seeing Hailey McDaniel develop,” Davis said. “She’s a solid kid — big, strong kid. Hopefully she’s going to take over Anna Fowler’s spot at third base and do just as good of a job as (Fowler) did.”
The younger players may add a little more speed to Stillwater’s lineup — something that has been lacking in the past few years — but don’t expect the Lady Pioneers to be bunting their way around the bases any time soon.
One of Stillwater’s leading power hitters — catcher Halley Randolph — returns for her junior season after playing most of the summer with the national team for her age group.
“She’s getting some experience and some exposure out there in California,” Davis said. “She’s getting to play against some top dogs, which is good for her and good for us. She’s going to bring back a lot of experience for us and help us behind the plate.”
Randolph may be known for her bat as much as her rocket arm behind the plate, but it’s the person in front of her that Davis is eager see the most.
Baby Phares got some varsity experience last year as the No. 2 pitcher behind Brittney Lockett. Now she’ll be Davis’ ace following Lockett’s graduation.
“That makes me sleep a little better at night knowing that I have my varsity catcher and varsity pitcher returning,” Davis said.
But perhaps the biggest difference this year will be that overall team speed. Over the year’s Davis has had some quick teams, but she said this might be the quickest group she’s had during her tenure.
“We’re going to make mistakes and so are (our opponents),” Davis said. “If they score two runs, we’re going to have to score four. We have a lot of team speed and that’s going to help. We were a little bit more of a power team last year, which is not a problem. This year, we don’t have as much power, but we should have a little bit of a short game and hopefully we can steal some bases this year. It’s been a while since I’ve had true speed, so it’s nice to know that on a bobble we might be able to make it.”
With that speed also comes expectations — fueled even more by the fact Stillwater had to forfeit in regionals last season because it played too many games.
“We do want to win districts for sure and we want to return to regionals,” Hughes said. “After that we’ll see how it goes.”
That forfeit may have lingered in the offseason and continues to sit in the back of the older player’s minds as they go through two-a-days and get ready for next week’s scrimmages before the season begins. But with teams like Broken Arrow and Owasso in the newly aligned districts, the Lady Pioneers are looking forward to the future.
“I definitely feel like we have a lot to prove,” Hughes said. “We are a little nervous to play the new people, but it’s just a new challenge for us. It just makes us that much better.”
“We’re ready to get this thing going,” Davis said. “We know some of these teams only by name and reputation, but I do feel like we can be competitive. We may be young, but I feel like we’re definitely talented enough to finish at least in the top four in our district.”