For the third straight season, Newton County will be considered young on the softball field.
But that doesn’t seem to matter to long-time coach Justin Chaney and the Lady Cougars, who are fresh off of another Class 4A state championship and a 29-6 season.
Newton County has only one senior in Jessie Thaggard and have to replace three graduating seniors in Kassie Denson, Shay Spivey and Megan Jim.
“We are going to have to replace all three of those seniors,” Chaney said. “I have a couple of girls from fast-pitch that are now playing slow-pitch and will help us out. We have seven starters and they know what they are doing. Over the course of the last three weeks, things are starting to come together as far as who is going to play.”
Last year’s 4A title win over West Lauderdale was the school’s 11th in slow-pitch and seventh in a row. Chaney said winning a 12th title is all about timing.
“I think this team has a chance to be really good on paper,” Chaney said. “But you still have to go out there and earn it, nothing is going to be given to you. Honestly, I think it’s all about who gets hot in the playoffs. In the middle of the last year, I didn’t know if we would get there or not. Once they got there, they got hot and won the thing.
“Yeah, we have seven returning starters but have three new starters there. It’s how those other seven mesh with those three. If things come together, we should have a shot.”
Newton County does return its starting pitcher in Katelynn Gipson, who started last year and was 4-for-5 in the deciding championship game against West Lauderdale.
“I don’t think you can overvalue a pitcher in this sport,” Chaney said. “Katelynn started for us last year and I think that showed in our scrimmage. She looked like a seasoned veteran out there. You have to be able to hit your spots and work the corners. You leave the ball flat over the plate and people are going to mash it.”
Like most Newton County teams, Chaney believes the strength of this team will be on the defensive side.
“I think we are going to be a very good defensive team in a hitters’ sport,” Chaney said. “You don’t see those old timey slow-pitch teams where they just outslug you. You have to make fundamental plays on defense and that goes back to experience. That’s been the nice thing in practice, when you go over stuff, they understand it.”
With the MHSAA combining Class 3A and 4A, Newton County will be in the division with Southeast Lauderdale, Northeast Lauderdale, Quitman, Raleigh, Morton and Forest in what will now be considered Class II.
And the Cougars will play their routine rugged schedule.
“I like it,” Chaney said of the realignment. “It throws a new wrinkle into it. They are taking four teams from each division. This should be fun to experience.
“We were looking at it today. I thought last year that slow-pitch was down but you look at in this area at each school and there are quality coaches at every school. You look at Union, Neshoba, Philadelphia, Clarkdale, Lake and so many more, they all have quality coaches. I think the quality of softball has gone way up and that’s because of the coaches. I think that makes everybody else better.”