A capsule look at the local teams heading into this week’s start to the 2020 season:
Maci Brown, Carson Frier, Karis Smith, MacKenzie Taylor
What to look for
Returning seven starters and with additional pitching depth, the Bulldogs are looking to bounce back from their sub-.500 season a year ago.
Brown is back as a power bat in Suwannee’s lineup, while SHS coach Jeff Smith said in addition to being a key piece in the lineup, Karis Smith has worked hard and has improved in the circle as well. Mackenzie Taylor and Carson Frier are other key contributors that are back, with Jeff Smith eager for Frier to be back full-time as she has been competing in soccer and weightlifting, missing most of the preseason activities.
The Bulldogs dropped to Class 4A and will be in a district with Baker County, Ed White and Paxon. Suwannee finished as region runner-ups to Baker a year ago before falling in the first round of the state playoffs.
“We just have a really good team that’s willing to work hard…The seniors are really dedicated and trying to keep everybody working together and working hard and they’ve got a really good attitude. They’d like to have a really good year this year. I think we have some players that can do it.”
— SHS coach Jeff Smith
Adrianna Saavedra, Cassidy Bruce, Cera McElreath, Madison Gallman
What to look for
Coming off a tough season, the Buccaneers are hoping a young roster coupled with a new district leads to a better 2020. Part of that optimism comes with improved pitching as Cassidy Bruce, last year’s main arm, will be joined by two other options in the circle.
Branford also brings back the bulk of its lineup, including Saavedra, a senior, as well as McElreath, Gallman, Evie Pitts, Dara Cannon, Makenzie Eakins and Kaitlin Timberlake. Still, BHS coach Oscar Saavedra said those returners have to produce better than a year ago, offensively. He is also counting on his daughter, Adrianna, to take on a leadership role for the Bucs.
Branford is also in a new district home in District 6-1A. Bell, which finished 20-6 a year ago, is still in the district, but reigning state champion Trenton is gone. Lafayette, Fort White and Taylor County round out the district.
“Our team average was very below average last year. One of the lowest years I’ve had since I’ve coached. We are really working on hitting this year.”
— BHS coach Oscar Saavedra
Blake Selph, Brooke Howell, Rachel Fry, Taylor Lee
What to look for
A new coach and a wealth of new players on a young team means a season of change for the Trojans.
Horace Jefferson, who takes over as Hamilton’s coach, is embracing that. He said he couldn’t even say what the Trojans’ record was a year ago.
“I didn’t even ask about that because we’re looking at the windshield and we’re not looking at the rearview mirror,” said Jefferson, who also coaches the HCHS girls basketball team. “We’re just looking to the future.
“The main thing that we’re trying to do with the whole program, our motto for the year is ‘Embrace the change.’ Some kids are going to be asked to do things they’ve never done before and some things kids that have been expected to do they won’t have to do any more.”
Part of that change will also be an emphasis on versatility. Jefferson said outside of pitchers and catchers, the entire HCHS roster has worked during preseason practices at all three outfield positions and around the diamond on the infield. That will lead to a lot of new faces in new places, as will a 14-player roster that features just three seniors and seven eighth graders.
Among the returners for the Trojans are Selph, Howell, Fry and Lee. Jefferson is also excited about the youngsters on the roster, who had a strong middle school season a year ago as well as a host of travel ball experience.
“The sky is the limit for the Lady Trojans. The sky is the limit. It may not be immediate, but as we grow, we will become a force to be reckoned with.”
— HCHS coach Horace Jefferson
Richelle McDonald, Jenna Nall, McKenzie Winburn, Hannah Murray
What to look for
Winners of 14 straight district championships, the expectation is clear for the Hornets. Still, coach Derek Garland said that is not a goal discussed. Rather, it is about improving each and every day. Returning 12 players and eight starters off a team that advanced to a Class 1A state semifinal, improvement could mean big things for Lafayette.
McDonald is back in the circle for the Hornets, going 12-9 with a 2.85 ERA a year ago with 115 strikeouts in 132 2-3 innings. McDonald also led LHS with a .355 average, two triples and 23 runs scored last year. Nall hit .333 while Winburn and Murray each hit one of the team’s three home runs.
The Hornets were just 5-10 a year ago before going on a late-season surge that carried them deep in the playoffs. That turnaround began with defensive improvement and being more consistent, keys Garland hopes carries over.
“That’s what we really talked about is trying to be consistent all year. That’s our big motto, being a little better today than yesterday and controlling the things we can control. And hopefully by the end of the season, we’re playing our best softball again.”
— LHS coach Derek Garland