BY BRYCE PHILLIPS, Elizabethton Star
When a team loses four players of the caliber of two-time All-State player Lauren Brickey, pitcher Kellie Cunningham, homerun hitting centerfielder Maci West, and slick-fielding shortstop Macie Herrmann, a coach might be left scratching their head wondering what they were going to do.
However, Coach Kenneth Hardin of Elizabethton who is entering his 13th season at the helm of the Lady Cyclones has seen great players come and go and others step up to fill those shoes to keep the beat going and expects no less for the 2019 season.
“You don’t replace players like that,” said Hardin. “You let these other players develop their own identity and others will step up for us.
“That’s the way you have to do things. You don’t want to compare them to anyone else—you just want them to go and play their own style of ball and see what type of team we are.”
In reviewing the early portion of preseason, Harding felt like that his team’s hitting was a few steps above the pitching in the early going.
“Our strength right now is probably going to be the hitting right now it looks like,” Hardin stated. “Our pitching has to catch up a little bit. We lost our two main pitchers from last year and we are trying to figure out who is going to get most of the innings and who we can trust.”
The cupboard wasn’t left completely bare
coming into 2019 as Hardin has four seniors that have been through the fire and know exactly what needs to be done to have success.
“It starts with Haley Fair behind the plate,” Hardin said. “She is like a little General out there and a coach on the field.
“I don’t have to call too many timeouts to go say anything to the pitchers because she says it between pitches and lets them know because she is very forceful and takes command and that’s what you want out of a catcher. As Haley goes, we will go.”
“Kira Dillard will be in centerfield and has done a good job so far,” added Hardin. “She makes all the plays for us and hits from the left side of the plate and hits well so we are depending on her.”
“Autumn Hensley is back from an injury and will be at first base and designated hitting a little bit until we get that leg where she needs to be,” stated Hardin. “She’s a gamer—she has been out there giving it all she’s got to get ready.”
“Hannah Edwards is versatile,” Hardin continued. “She will pitch some, and she is going to be our third baseman. We are depending on all four of our seniors and will need a lot out of them.”
The junior class
Outside of his senior class, Hardin is feeling pretty good about the rest of his team from the junior class down.
“Our junior class is in pretty good shape,” said Hardin. “Maggie Johnson is killing the ball and has a lot of speed.
“Kaylen Shell is probably one of the best athletes in the school and can do about anything. If we had a bowling team, she would be one of our best bowlers you know. There are some others in our junior class who will be stepping up to help us as well.
“As far as the younger ones go, we have Madisun Pritchard in a triangle there,” Hardin continued. “She pitches and she has thrown a couple of great games in preseason. She will pitch a lot for us as a freshman and you know that’s rare.
“She also is our shortstop and plays third base when Hannah pitches. Again, she is versatile and she completely kills the ball and she is going to be a great player for us.
“Maddie O’Quinn came in and played second base for us this past weekend and had four or five hits in basically two and a half to three games so I expect a lot out of her,” Hardin said. “She has a lot of speed and a good glove at second base.
“She will pitch a lot of JV for us, and if we need her in varsity, I am sure that she will go in there and give it everything that she has got.”
Just like a great puzzle, Hardin said that if each player recognizes exactly how they fit into the grand scheme of Lady Cyclone softball and fulfill that role, the team can be special by the time the season winds down.
“They know what hard work is, especially those who have been here before,” said Hardin. “They put in the time, and we just hit so darn much. If they buy in and do what teams have done in the past, they will be okay.
“This is a rebuilding year, but I think that by the end of the year that we can be up there competing with anybody.”
What about the Three Rivers Conference
In years past, it has been a two-dog race for the most part between the Lady Cyclones and the Unicoi County Lady Blue Devils as both teams have battled for supremacy in the Three Rivers Conference.
Hardin is a gamer who like many coaches loves to win more than to lose. However, the softball season may resemble the recently completed girls’ basketball season as there are several teams that return key players that may make the conference title a greyhound race to the finish.
“You always start with Unicoi and for several years it has been us, and if we are not there, then we are going to keep on playing until we get back,” Hardin said in reviewing the conference. “Sullivan East is going to be very good as well. They have four seniors that have contributed and they basically have started all four years. They have pitching and hit the ball very well.
“Johnson County played very tough last year and won the JV conference tournament so you can’t leave them out. Sullivan Central is basically an unknown—nobody has seen them this fall as they have a new coach.
“Coach Chris does a great job at Sullivan South and works hard,” continued Hardin. “Cody Hyder is working down there at Happy Valley as hard as he can with the situation with the field and everything.
“We wish them the best. I have talked to Coach Hyder and told him that anything he needs to let us know and I will try my best to help them.”
Breaking down the key to success
When asked what the key to success for the season would be, it all came down to how his teams respond mentally to what is going on around them.
“We need to play like a major league team,” added Hardin. “We can’t get too high if we win or get to low if we lose. We need to stay level headed and play within ourselves and adjust as we go.
“I am sure there will be different position changes and our lineup will change throughout the year until we get the best possible scenario and until we can put our best pitcher out there whoever that is.
“It will just have to work itself out.”