After making a deep run in the 4A playoffs last year, the Lake Norman softball team is excited to embark on another quest for a state title.
The talented Wildcats, which feature three all-state players in this year's roster, have a realistic shot of reaching that goal.
"I think we're going to do really well as long as we stay focused and work as a team the whole time," said pitcher Kayla Pine, one of those all-state players.
The Wildcats were one of the best teams in the state last year, going 26-3 overall and reaching the 4A West Regional semifinals. Along the way they defeated perennial title contender, nationally-ranked Alexander Central.
Lake Norman also came up short of winning the I-Meck regular season championship, barely losing it to North Mecklenburg after dropping two conference games - one against the Vikings and another to rival Mooresville. The Wildcats went on to win the conference tournament.
The team returns most of last year's talent, although it lost two seniors - all-state catcher Mariah McGuffey and JoBeth Wright.
Lake Norman will be led by Pine, who was 9-2 from the mound last season, and fellow junior ace Stacey Houser, also an all-state selection after going 8-1 last year. They will be the key to how successful the Wildcats will be from now until May.
Not only is the duo dominant as pitchers, giving up less than a run a game last year, but they were also among the top offensive players for the Wildcats.
And the talent doesn't stop there. Junior Arin Hall, an all-state second baseman, as well as sophomores Chloe Archer, Dominique Wilson and Shelby Bailey should give the Wildcats a boost.
With his promising young player, along with seniors Meredith Fleming and Hannah Littlefield, coach Bob Hall likes the team's chances in the conference and the state.
"They can accomplish whatever they want," he said.
His Wildcats agree.
"We have great confidence in ourselves, honestly," said Archer, explaining that the team wasn't afraid to make high goals. "I think we can go far, but we just have to work together as a team the whole way."
Hall, who enters his second year as the team's head coach, wanted to make sure his team stuck to their goals, so he started requiring his players to keep a journal.
"That helps us know where they are and what they're thinking. As coaches that helps us motivate them," he said. "If their goals are to win states, then so be it."
But Hall isn't thinking that far ahead yet; his main goal is to get the team to play the best they can. He knows that if they do that, wins and losses will take care of themselves.
"But when they get to that level, they'll be a very hard team to beat," said Hall.
His players know getting there won't be easy.
"We're going to have to work as hard, if not harder than last year," said catcher Kayla McGuffey. "We know we have a target on our back."
Although the team is still gelling, they won't have too much time to regroup, as they've already began I-Meck play.
The biggest hurdle standing between Lake Norman and a conference championship is again North Mecklenburg, which returns a talented team led by all-American catcher Sarah Mooney and all-conference pitcher Morgan Lashley.
Hopewell, which finished third in the conference last year, should also be in the mix despite having lost four all-conference players. The Titans will be led by seniors Lindsey Russell and Shelby Randall.
With the experience gained in the past year, Bailey hopes her Lake Norman team is able to use that to their advantage to win the I-Meck and to stay in the hunt for a state title.
"Everyone knows what to expect," the third baseman said. "We were really young last year.
"Everyone has grown a lot - it's easier to work with everyone now that we're on the same page."