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Derrck Mahone/Douglas County Sentinel Chapel Hill junior Kira Morgan will be counting on to be the Panthers ace pitcher this season.

After the success of teams in the area last season, there is a good reason to be excited about the start of softball season.

Alexander and Chapel Hill won a region titles and Lithia Springs experience one of the best turnarounds in the state. Douglas County reached the postseason.

With the return of several talented players, including last season’s hitter and pitcher of the year, more success is surely in store for area teams.

Here is a look at each of the county’s softball programs:

ALEXANDER: The Cougars reached a new pinnacle during the 2016 season by setting records for program wins (25) and reaching the Elite Eight Tournament in Columbus for the first time in school history. Through in its first region championship since 2007 and helping coach Zack Graham get his 100th career win, and it was a pretty successful season.

Last year’s taste of success has left this season’s team hungry for more.

The Cougars only graduated three seniors, two of them starters, from a group that finished 25-12-1 and No. 3 in Class AAAAAA. However, the two graduates Gracyn Thrasher (third base) and Makenzie Buck (outfielder) were four-year players and keep starters in the lineup.

A third starter, outfielder Lily Agan, transferred to East Coweta in the offseason.

With Buck and Agan gone, the Cougars only return two in the outfield.

Senior center fielder Gracie Williams is the lone returner in the outfield but Graham is confident he has some replacements in some younger players.

“Everybody is competing every day in practice,” Graham said.

The pitching will be solid with the return of junior Brooke Strickland, who threw 108 strikeouts in 194 innings and had a 2.77 ERA to compile a 23-8 record.

Agan was the backup pitcher but Graham feel he has a replacement in freshman Brayle Mimbs, who comes over from Mason Creek Middle.

“Brooke is such an incredible athlete,” Graham said. “

The infield and starting pitching will be the strength of the team with the return of seniors Faith Shirley (catcher), Jessica Womble (first base), and Avery Timmons (second base). Senior Landry Solomon is a utility infielder who will likely get the start at third and Bailey Clark is the reserve catcher.

Graham likes the leadership that his senior group has provide and Timmons, Williams and Solomon all have a 4.0 grade-point average and in the top-10 percent of a senior class of about 500 students.

“I’m very proud of that fact,” Graham said. “We have a good group of kids.”

CHAPEL HILL: By any other standards, the Panthers fourth straight region title and fourth place finish at state would be a very impressive finish. However, the taste of winning the 2015 state title had the Panthers wanting equal success last season.

“When you win it all, you always want it again the next season,” Chapel Hill coach Mickey Harper said. “I won’t say it was a disappointment, but we wanted to do it again.”

The Panthers return seven starters from last season with ace pitcher Ashley Morgan (Tennessee) and first baseman/outfielder Bell Caricari (Morehead State)  the two starters gone.

There are definitely some high expectation on this group.

“We have some pretty good experience and I’m pretty pleased with our lineup from one through nine,” Harper said. “They bring a lot of confidence to the game. Defensively we have five juniors in the lineup so we look for some real consistency in there.”

County hitter of the year Savanna Sikes returns as a four-year starter. The Auburn commit .471 from a year ago and scored 34 runs. Paige Vincent, a catcher/pitcher, is the second leading returning hitter for the Panthers, who batted .303 with 21 home runs last season.

Juniors Isis Taylor and Ivory Jones also give the team solid hitting in the lineup. Sophomore Taylor Middlebrook, infielder, is being counted on to continue her improvement. She has committed to Mississippi State after hitting .304 as a freshmen.

Incoming freshman Rylie Moody might find her way into the starting lineup in the infield. She played for Chapel Hill Middle last season.

In the circle, Kira Morgan will again be the ace pitcher. The junior pitched 124 innings and had 72 strikeouts with a 1.80 ERA. Vincent was the backup with 16 innings pitched.

“Kira pitched a lot of pressure-filled innings and has a lot of confidence,” Harper said. “She knows the circle is her’s this season.”

 

DOUGLAS COUNTY: The Tigers finished fourth in the region last season and reached the state playoffs. With the return of five starters, including the entire pitching staff, another playoff appearance is the expectations.

“The region hasn’t change as far as teams,” Tigers coach Aubrey Biddle said. “We feel we got about the same chance as last year. It is similar circumstances and we have some experience back.”

Leading the way in the circle is Jackie Nemanich, Ivy Cochran and Shayiah Dillett. They each pitched an average of 36 innings last season. All three play other positions when they are not pitching. Nemanich and Cochran are seniors and Dillett is a junior.

“They are very versatile and can do a lot to help the team,” Biddle said.

The Tigers were led by Nemanich with a .431 batting average while  junior Annsley Todd  had a .423 average. Cochran hit .387 and Hope Gaines hit .357.

Biddle is also looking for continued improvement with Dillett at the plate.

LITHIA SPRINGS: The Lions enjoyed a resurgence in the program as they reached the state playoffs. There are seven starters back including the majority of the leading hitters and top pitchers.

As a team last season, Lithia Springs hit .412 and had six home runs and 113 stolen bases.

Leading the way was senior Payton Welch, who hit .519 and scored 28 runs. Also returning to the lineup is Haley Overton (.458), Bryanna Moore (.443),  Skyler Ryan (.421) and Regan Brooks (.400).

Senior Sierra McDowell led the pitchers with a 5-1 record and 35 strikeouts in 38 innings. Brooks, a sophomore, pitched the most innings with 47 and had 36 strikeouts while Welch had a 1.18 ERA and 19 strikeouts in 22 innings pitched.

“We had success as a young bunch last season,” Lions coach Chris Sheperd said. “We got a lot of returners and a few freshmen that can contribute.”

NEW MANCHESTER: The Jaguars look to continue to build their team. New Manchester looks to rebound from a three-win season in a competitive region.

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