By Rob Patrick
This Thursday, Feb. 24, the “Beasts” are back.
The Bryant Lady Hornets’ 2010 State champion softball team was[more] so young (and so talented) that, in 2011, seven starters return and none of them are seniors. Nicknamed “beasts” by head coach Debbie Clark for their hitting prowess — Exhibit A, their 13-4 romp over Bentonville in the title game — they take on Texarkana in a pre-season scrimmage on Thursday at 5 p.m. They’ll officially open the season on Monday, Feb. 28, at Bishop Park against the rival Benton Lady Panthers.
Naturally, to repeat is the goal and, for some, it’s hard not to look back or look ahead. Clark and the players want to concentrate on getting started, to compete on a game-by-game basis.
“We need the season to start,” the coach acknowledged. “We are dealing with illness, some minor injuries and it seems like we can’t get rid of that. I’m hoping, once the games start, everybody will bounce back. We got to enjoy the championship from last year and now that’s still back there so we need to get started so we can say, ‘Okay, this is the 2011 season.’”
Not that 2010, which they finished with a 25-2 record, is something anyone wants to forget, of course.
“We talk about it a lot,” Clark allowed. “You know, the year before last, they’d taken second and so we talked about that feeling and I think probably the difference this year is that I’ve got to make sure they stay hungry. I don’t want them to get satisfied and that’s real easy to get. We all do that every time we got through a buffet line probably. I need them to stay hungry. So we talk about last season. We’ve got a trophy case but I told them that we can’t look in the rearview mirror as far as driving to our goal. We can glance every once in a while. It’s a good thing that we know how to get there and how to win. That’s what we’re trying to focus on.”
And not everything’s the same, she noted. “It’s a different make-up of the team. There are new freshmen and so it’s different. And I feel more comfortable too. It’s my second year here and I know the people more. I know the girls more and the system. That’s been really helpful to me, that pressure is off me.”
It was an eventful off-season for the coach as well. The former Debbie Stepp wed Brad Clark in June 2010.
The Lady Hornets’ core group of junior standouts include all-State performers Jessie Taylor and Peyton Jenkins who make up the battery (catcher and pitcher, respectively). Kayla Sory’s at first, Jenna Bruick at second, Cassidy Wilson at short and Ashley Chaloner returns to the outfield along with sophomore Hannah Rice who, as a freshman, was among those that clobbered a home run in the championship game last year.
The team also includes seniors Shelby Henson and Jesseca Cudd; juniors Brittany Ball, Ashlyn Lessenberry and Bethany Smith; sophomores Stephanie Cyz, Jackie Hill, Brooke Howell, McKenzie Rice and Carly Yazza; and freshmen Kayley Coppock, Kayla Jolley, Breanna Sanders, Katy Stillman and Erin Waddell.
The holes in the starting lineup are centerfield and third base.
“(At practice recently) I held up a lineup card and said ‘It’s not filled out yet, so all spots are open,’” Clark related. “It’s hard because we have so many returning and they have to understand that there’s not anything given to them, they have to earn it. And I don’t want the other girls to get discouraged and say, ‘Well, I’ll never get a chance,’ which is not true because anything can happen. Right now, I’m thinking if you can play defense, you can hit the ball then I’m going to have to try to find you a place on that field.”
To that end, the coach said, “We have some people making some noise. (Sophomore) Carly Yazza is looking really good for us. We have a couple of freshmen, Katie Stillman, Breanna Sanders and Kayley Coppock that have all looked really, really strong in practice. (Sophomore) Stephanie Cyz — the list goes on and on.
“We met at the end of last year with each of them and asked them what their goals were and the ones that were not in the State championship game, that was their goal, to be a part of that lineup,” Clark mentioned.
“I have two seniors, Jesseca Cudd and Shelby Henson, who got playing time at different times last year,” she continued. “Both of them battled injury from time to time and they both really want to see the field. Shelby, we’ve looked at her at third base and looked at Jesseca in the outfield. Jesseca had a terrible injury before I came in the summer a couple of years ago. She’s really worked hard to get back and strong. I’d like to see her some on the mound too.”
In fact, with the addition of Jolley, Clark said she now has six pitchers.
“I looked out the other day at all of them pitching and I had six pitchers and three catchers,” she related. “I thought there are colleges that don’t have this kind of talent. It’s nice to have people who can pitch and can catch, that have done it for years and I’m not having to make somebody into something they’re not. You know, it’s kind of hard to make Albert Pujols into a slapper. It’s hard to take a player who’s not been in those positions because they’re so specialized and actually be able to be successful, so I feel extremely blessed.”
Hannah Rice and Katy Stillman are the back-ups at catcher for Taylor.
Ball and McKenzie Rice will join the team after the basketball season, the coach mentioned. “McKenzie last year was our backup to Shanika (Johnson) at third base so, after the first couple of games, the lineup may be different. But that’s what you want, competition. Competition makes you better. The depth on the bench makes everybody work harder.”
And, Clark asserted, the newcomers are fitting right in.
“The freshmen have come in and they can hit the ball,” she said with her usual enthusiasm. “They know what it’s like to be a Beast already. They’re like Junior Beasts. They’re ready.”