Almost an entire new roster will take to the diamond for the University of West Georgia softball team this spring and second-year head coach Al Thomas hopes that the new faces can bring something special to the table much sooner than later.
The Wolves officially kickstart the 2018 campaign today when they battle Eckerd and Miles College on Day 1 of the Gulf Shores Softball Invitational in Gulf Shores, Alabama.
The biggest question for Thomas heading into opening weekend is how quickly can his roster of brand new faces jell on the field.
"It's kind of unusual because we have 10 freshmen and four JUCOs, so two-thirds of our team is new and the the other third have only been with me for a year," Thomas said on Wednesday. "We're all still kind of trying to find that identity, but these players are all willing to work and hustle. They have a lot of talent and that first game is the first step towards piecing it together."
Among the eight returnees for UWG includes sophomore Raven Smith, who delivered a stellar debut in 2017 en route to being named Gulf South Conference Freshman of the Year and a Preseason All-GSC performer this year. Her head coach is confident in her ability to make an even greater impact.
"She was more of a shortstop in high school, but we needed her at third last year. She stepped up and did a great job," Thomas said. "She's unselfish, will hit to the opposite side and will try to move runners. We expect her to continue to improve."
Thomas ran down his other returnees who will be leading the Wolves into the spring campaign.
"Sierra Stella was a first-team all-conference player from last year at second base. She did phenomenal job last in her sophomore year, so we expect her to do better her junior year," Thomas said.
"Peyton Stallworth has also returned and done a great job. She played left field for us last year and has actually been working behind the plate a little bit. Lexie Stohr, who played first base last year, has done a great job hitting. She's come around and has found her place after transferring from Armstrong State and will be our DP. Our only two seniors are pitchers Zoie LaVergne and Danielle Easterly. They will be seeing time in a relief role."
From there is where the newcomers take over for the Wolves.
Freshman Alley Taylor from Coral Springs, Florida, will take over shortstop duties, while freshman Allie Parkerson from Eastman and Snead State transfer Mallory Walker will be behind the plate at catcher.
At right field will be Northwest Florida State College transfer Beatriz Cardoza, while Madison Slappey and Sydney Smith will share center field duties. Returning sophomore Trinity Kirkland will hold down left field.
One of the more competitive positions on the field is at first base, where a variety of players are vying for the starting job.
"I don't know who I'm going to start (today), but we have some kids battling it out," Thomas said. "Madison Chambers was a JUCO All-American and she's been working hard. So has Lexi Close, a freshman from Hillsboro, Missouri. Cassie Henderson from Calhoun, whose father has coached their baseball team to several state titles, comes in here with a little bit of a pedigree. We're going to figure it out and it's going to be fun watching how that unfolds."
In the circle starting for the Wolves will be freshman Katie Foote from Bishop, as well as McDonough native Raya Moncus.
Thomas once again lauded the talent of his 2018 ballclub.
"When you look out at everything, the toughest part is just figuring out who's going to be out there," Thomas said. "When you have that type of competition, it's a good thing to have."
UWG will spend the first week and a half of the regular season on the road before returning to Carrollton for a Feb. 14 doubleheader versus Columbus State.
Then it's on to GSC play, where the Wolves were picked to finish eighth in the preseason coaches poll. A GSC coaching veteran, Thomas anticipates another competitive field up and down the league, but he is confident that his team can find itself near the top at the end.
"It's going to be wide open and it'll be interesting to see how it develops," Thomas said. "The Gulf South is the toughest softball conference in the country. In the last 10 years, someone from the Gulf South has either won the national championship or come close. We're in a tough conference, but I think that if the team comes together, finds their identity and avoids injuries, we'll have a chance to have a really good year."