Head coach: Clay Ardeeser (1st year)
2018 record: 19-14
Last playoff appearance: 2018
Key losses: Faith Hager (P), Kassidy Slayton (3B), Claire Williams (C), Asia Buckins (SS), Robyn Lowe (CF), Mallory Smith (1B), Parker Spain (2B)
Key returners: Kennedy Stephens (P/OF), Jordan Wilson (OF), Cameron Hodges (OF/P), Trezure Callwood (3B/P), Makenzie Pugh (1B)
Key additions: Syerra Palmer (SS)
Outlook: Graduating five starters and losing a sixth to a transfer had first-year head coach Clay Ardeeser wondering what kind of talent level he would have to work with at Heritage this upcoming season.
With the Patriots reaching the Elite 8 Class AAAAAA state tournament last season for the first time in two years, initial expectations were low. But it didn’t take long for Ardeeser to realize that the 2019 Patriots aren’t a team ready to back down.
“Everywhere I go, I try to familiarize myself with the players,” said Ardeeser, who coached at Sprayberry High School last season. “From working with the girls this whole summer, we have a really good starting nine. We don’t have that depth from last year, but we’ll still be very talented 1-9.”
Highlighting the Patriots’ returning starters includes rising junior Kennedy Stephens, who will have the difficult job of replacing Region 3 Pitcher of the Year Faith Hager in the circle. Stephens pitched 27 innings in 2018 and posted a 2.59 ERA compared to Hager’s 1.64 ERA in 184 innings.
“We have three arms that can pitch, but it will probably more so be a two-pitcher tandem this season,” Ardeeser said. “Kennedy will be our No. 1 this year and she was Faith’s backup last year. She got some innings on varsity last year which was really good for her.’
“We also have Cameron, who will play in the outfield for us this year, but is really good on the mound, too. Those two girls are really interchangeable this year. It’s really good to have two arms. It’s always good to have someone else to eat up some innings.”
In the field, Hodges, Makenzie Pugh, Jordan Wilson and Trezure Callwood are set to return in 2019. Callwood is expected to replace Citizen Co-Offensive Player of the Year Kassidy Slayton at third base, while Pugh will return to her starting position at first.
“For the girls, it’s a matter of them believing in themselves,” Ardeeser said. “They know what we lost and they know we lost a top arm. They think that we’re not going to be as good, and it’s our job as a coaching staff to keep pushing them to be the best that they can be because they have so much more potential than they think they have.”
At shortstop, freshman Syerra Palmer is set to replace Asia Buckins, a player Ardeeser calls a future Division 1 talent.
While the Patriots aren’t set to return a lot of power at the plate, what they will return is speed. Stephens led the Patriots in stolen bases last season with 32, while Wilson stole 28 and Hodges stole 24.
“We have a ton of speed coming back,” Ardeeser said. “We don’t lose hardly anything as far as stolen bases go. We return three girls that stole over 20 bags last year. Returning all of that speed is great, but we have to have someone that can drive them in and that’s where girls like Makenzie, Trezure and Alayna Crutchfield come in handy.”
Pugh drove in eight runs for the Patriots in 2018 on six doubles. Callwood received only 14 at-bats last season and is expected to have a breakout season in 2019. Crutchfield did not receive an at-bat in 2018.
“Makenzie swings it well and she will be our first baseman,” Ardeeser said. “If she has a good year, I think it will help the team a lot. Cameron, who will be at the top of the order, swings it well, as well as Kennedy. Jordan, a senior will hopefully have a better season this year. She wasn’t happy with the way she played last year, but she has that potential in her.”
With the Patriots’ biggest offensive threats graduated, Ardeeser said he will look to manufacture runs in any way he can this season.
“We’re going to be an aggressive team,” Ardeeser said. “I’m really going to try and put pressure on the opposing teams. We’re going to bunt a lot, we’re going to slap a lot and find ways to get on. The biggest thing with me is that I don’t like errors. I like my teams to be buttoned down on defense. If you have a great defense, it will help your offense out a ton by winning games 3-2, 5-4 because you’re not making any errors.”
Looking to defend their Region 3 championship from one season ago, Ardeeser thinks that with everyone playing to their strengths, they can make a run at the title.
“I still expect us to compete for a region championship this year,” Ardeeser said. “We lost a lot from our really talented senior class last year. This year, it’s just a matter of us finding some other girls to contribute off of the bench. That will change our season from being a potential 2-3 seed to a region champion and state champion contender. That’s what we’re really pushing towards.”