Head coach: Heather Wood (12th year)
2018 record: 22-10
Last playoff appearance: 2018
Key losses: Dani Fairey (P/1B), Jordan Rittenbacher (3B), Kendall McAuliffe (2B), Jada Brown (OF)
Key returners: Kailey Rusk (P), Alysee Dobbs (3B), Lauren Burnett (SS), Natalie Ray (CF), Ava Anglin (OF), Heather Henderson (C)
Outlook: The disappointing end to the Eastside softball season in 2018 has not been forgotten by head coach Heather Wood and her returning crop of players.
With expectations of making it back to Columbus for the second straight year to compete in the Class AAAA 8-team state championship tournament, the Eagles’ chances fell short with a first-round exit to Perry.
Wood, who is entering her 12th season as the Eagles’ head coach, said that while her team is looking to move past that disappointment, the extra motivation it has created for their 2019 hopes has been fuel to their fire.
“I think it creates a hunger for this group,” Wood said. “We know we fell short and we know we have the talent to make it to the playoffs. I think we just have to tighten up and get it done this year.”
The Eagles will be without several star-studded seniors from last year’s team, most of which occupied their infield. Dani Fairey, who traded her time between pitching and first base, leaves the Eagles along with second baseman Kendal McAuilffle and third baseman Jordan Rittenbacher.
Jada Brown, a rising sophomore in the Eagles’ outfield will be another key player the Eagles will have to replace in 2019 after her transfer to cross-town foe Alcovy.
Despite their key losses, Wood is more than optimistic with a roster chock full of talent.
“We lost three of our infielders from last year, but we have a solid group returning,” Wood said. “I have Alysee (Dobbs) at third. We’ve kind of shifted her around. Having Lauren (Burnett) back at shortstop, she’s healthy and looking great.”
Dobbs, a rising senior, has spent the vast majority of her career at Eastside behind the plate as a catcher. Forced to play shortstop as a junior following a season-ending injury to Burnett, a University of Georgia commit, Wood said she feels more comfortable with her playing third base in 2019.
Kelsey Ellis, a rising junior, is set to replace McAuliffe at second base this season while a starting first baseman job is still up for grabs. Behind the plate, rising sophomore Heather Henderson will return after taking over the position midway through her freshman season.
“Heather was a freshman coming in last year, so we’ve been working a lot with her and developing her as a catcher,” Wood said. “Coming in and being a starting catcher as a freshman is a big position to fill. With her behind the plate, that gives us more flexibility to have Alysee and Lauren at key positions in the infield.”
The Eagles’ outfield will be highlighted by rising sophomore center fielder Natalie Ray, who was named the Citizen’s Freshman of the Year in 2018. Ray batted leadoff for the Eagles as a freshman and led the team .432 average on a team-best 38 hits.
“She can do anything,” Wood said of Ray. “She can bunt, she can slap, she can hit. That’s what makes her such a threat offensively as a leadoff hitter because the opposing team doesn’t know what to expect. Her power and her speed is a big asset for us.”
With Ray being protected by the likes of rising junior Ava Anglin and Burnett, who batted 1-2-3 in their recent scrimmage against Locust Grove, Wood expects the top of her lineup to do a lot of damage in 2019.
“They’re aggressive and they make things happen,” Wood said. “I couldn’t be more excited about this group. They all offer something different, whether it’s speed from Natalie or power from Lauren. Ava has really come on strong for us and I think she’s going to do really well for us. We have a lot of talent in this lineup and I expect a lot more production and a lot of runs being scored this season.”
In the circle, the Eagles will return University of North Georgia commit Kailey Rusk, who compiled a 10-7 season as a junior with a 1.82 ERA. She also struck out 178 batters in 132 innings pitched.
“Kailey has been dominant for us in the circle for the past three seasons,” Wood said. “I expect the same thing this year.”
Wood said she expects the duo of rising sophomores Megan Coggins and Vyctoria Freeman to split time in the circle behind Rusk.
“Us losing Dani, who was our other talented pitcher along with Kailey last year, we’re having to bring up a young pitcher,” Wood said. “I’ve thought (Freeman) has done a good job for us. She’s really been working hard in the offseason. We’re working on getting her a lot of innings and getting her that experience. We’re doing what we can to develop both her and Coggins so that once Kailey is gone, they will have that varsity experience.”
Wood and the Eagles will open their regular season on the road at Alcovy on Aug. 8.