By the end of this season, Jay M. Robinson High School's softball team will have had plenty of opportunities to find out whether it deserves its ranking in The Observer's pre-season Sweet 16.
Ranked ninth in that poll, the Bulldogs will play 13 games against teams that reached the state playoffs last year. Eight of those games will come against fellow South Piedmont 3A Conference teams, including two against Sweet 16 colleague Northwest Cabarrus, which is ranked 15th. Robinson will also face third-ranked Ardrey Kell.
Coach Jim Allen said his defending conference champions will rely on strong pitching and two things you may not hear softball coaches talk about very often: team speed and depth.
Junior Dallas King was an all-state selection last year and is the reigning conference pitcher of the year. She opened the season with a muscle strain that has forced Allen to evaluate her progress day to day. Last year she had 113 strikeouts and a 1.53 earned run average while batting .320.
Fellow senior all-conference selections Megan Crowe (shortstop, .340 average, .477 on-base percentage) and Hayley Lewis (catcher, .415, 10 doubles) also return, as does experienced first baseman Alex Church.
"We have a lot of team speed this year," said Allen, in his second year as coach. "When you have a fast team, you can take extra bases and steal more. You cover more ground in the outfield .You can be more aggressive."
Adept at getting on base and "flying around the outfield," as Allen said, freshman Tori Zavodny is part of that movement. She's also one of five players capable of securing the three outfield positions.
Allen also said he has players competing to nail down starting positions at third base and second base, a luxury of depth that last year's Bulldogs didn't have. Robinson (24-4 overall, 12-2 conference) won the conference regular season and tournament titles in 2010 and won three playoff games to reach the state quarterfinals for the first time.
The Bulldogs will be pushed in the conference by Northwest Cabarrus (14-9, 9-5). The Trojans return seven starters, including all-state outfielder Michaela Boyd (senior, .405), who signed with Catawba College, and fellow all-conference and all-district catcher-third baseman Taylor Allen (.352), a UNC-Greensboro signee.
Andrea Jones (junior shortstop, .372 avg.) and Lindsay Shore (junior second baseman .306) shore up the infield, and Casey Sweet (senior, 2.29 ERA, 87 strikeouts) returns on the mound. Freshmen Katie Williford (pitcher), Lauren Wareham (outfield/first base), Bryana Hott (first base/third base), Nicole Yoho (catcher/third base) and Caroline Difoggio (second base) should enhance the lineup.
Central Cabarrus (20-8, 10-4) will also have to rely on some newcomers to replace four seniors from last year. All-state Tori Cragan (junior, IF/OF, .457, 11 doubles), T.J. Fain (senior, OF/C, .386), and Mellena Helms (P/IF/OF, .363) lead a cast that can play multiple positions.
The steady glove of infielder Lindsey Huneycutt (all-conference, infield) and the speed of Alley Kindley (CF, .300, 17 R), both seniors, will keep Mount Pleasant (18-11, 10-4) in contention. Junior Taylor Carpenter and sophomore Brandi Hudson will share pitching duties.
Four-year starters Shannon Arthur at shortstop and Jenna Brunnhoelzl in centerfield and three-year starters Kristin Durant (pitcher) and Caitlin Steel (catcher) helped Concord (14-11, 7-7) reach the second round of the state playoffs last year. Expect sophomores Brianna Clark (1B/P) and Ashleigh Ivey (outfield) to make an impact for the Spiders.
With mostly everyone returning, second-year Cox Mill (9-11, 6-8) expects to be in the thick of the conference race. The all-conference Faust twins - pitcher Nikki (team best .422 batting average, striking out nine batters per game) and catcher Amber (.325) - and middle infielder Katie Morris (.293) will keep the Chargers afloat.
Four-year starter Kimberly Newton (catcher, signed with Guilford College) and batterymate Alexis Eudy, a junior, hope to help Harrisburg Hickory Ridge (2-15, 2-12) bounce back from a down year. Junior second baseman Ally Yeager (.354) is a two-time all-conference player.
Switch-hitting senior shortstop Zebresha Blakeney led Kannapolis Brown (2-15, 0-14) in stolen bases and runs last year as she earned all-conference honors. First baseman Brittany Wiggins and catcher Haley Campbell, both seniors, and junior utility player Sara Tuttle were among the several players who missed significant action due to injury and forced the Wonders to forfeit several games at the end of last season.
Catcher Nicole Barringer and pitcher/second baseman Kim Fesperman, a Catawba signee, are among the six seniors who return for South Rowan (6-13, 4-7). Juniors Cayla Corriher (CF, .400, all county) and Kaitlyn Jones (SS, .400, all-conference) will try to help the Raiders challenge North Iredell, China Grove Carson and West Rowan in the North Piedmont 3A.
Cannon School (10-10, 6-2) looks to improve on its fourth-place finish in the private/independent schools 3A state tournament. Senior catcher Julie Harriss (.402, 6 HR, 22 RBI, Radford signee) and junior shortstop/pitcher Mackenzie Moyer (.375 avg., 0.40 ERA) were both all-state last year. Junior Stephanie Gray (2.48 ERA) will share time on the mound.
First Assembly (0-13) has already won more games this season than last by winning its season opener. Debbie Taylor, who won seven state championships at Charlotte Northside Christian, is the Eagles' new coach.
Erin Taylor (.531, 35 RBI), the coach's daughter, transferred in from Northside and will play either second base or catcher. Fellow senior captains will be Kasey Adock, a switch-hitting first baseman/centerfielder, and outfielder Hallie McNeill will provide leadership.