The 2019 Cartersville High softball team saw its season come to an end in the Region 5-AAAA tournament — one win shy of qualifying for the Class 4A state playoffs. Head coach Shannon Suarez is thankful that the same fate won’t befall her program this year.
While moving up to 5A for the new two-year cycle won’t be easy, the Canes will at least avoid the dreaded region tournament that has tripped them up the past few years. There will still be some work to be done to finish the season in the top four, even in the six-team Region 7-AAAAA, in hopes of reaching the playoffs.
Each team will play 15 region games — a doubleheader and a single game against each opponent — and Suarez is a fan of the schedule.
“I’m going to like that, I think, better than what we’ve done in the past,” she said. “I think the elimination of the region tournament will be in our favor also, just because we haven’t had much luck in the past. We’d finish good in the region and somehow not be able to come through in the region tournament to make the state tournament. I look forward to that. I hope it plays in our favor. The best of three I also like, just in case there is an upset, it kind of levels the playing field a little bit getting that extra game in. I think that’s going to help, as well.
“I think the region is going to be tough. There’s a lot of good teams. Starting with Calhoun, they’re always good, but right here, our local teams are good too. It’s going to be fun and enjoyable to get to play them. But at the same time, they’re going to bring a lot of experience, a lot of talent, so I’m looking forward to that. It’s going to be tough.”
The Canes will have a little bit of experience with region doubleheaders. Cartersville would always play back-to-back games against both LaGrange and Troup County in the previous region to cut down on travel. The region tournament also used the format, which could have contributed to the Canes being tripped up.
For Cartersville to have success in those situations this season, Suarez believes the key will be a more experienced group of pitchers — led by rising sophomores McKinley Chada, Kiley Arnold and Ava Perkins — along with the ability to replace the solid defensive play of a trio of graduated seniors. Cartersville will get its first taste of doubleheader action when it opens the season Friday at Denmark.
“It’s going to start with our pitching and our defense,” Suarez said. “I’m a firm believer that they are what’s going to win games for you. I’m happy and I’m pleased with our pitching staff and how they’re coming along. We have four pitchers on our staff this year. It’s going to be a pitch by committee. Everyone’s got a hand in it. …
“We lost three big infielders for us — Cio [Seigler], Hope [Short] and Lauren [McElhaney]. It’s about new people stepping up, filling those [spots] and leading our team.”
In most instances, having three sophomores and a freshman (Amelia Elrod) lead the pitching rotation is a recipe for disaster. But the aforementioned triumvirate of Chada, Arnold and Perkins threw nearly every pitch for the Canes last season.
Aside from an expected hiccup here and there, the then-freshmen did an outstanding job of keeping their team competitive every time they stepped into the circle. They will need to step up even more this year, and Suarez believes they will rise to the occasion.
“I’m quite confident in them,” Suarez said of her pitchers. “They came off a freshman year where they all got valuable time, put their nerves in the past and were able to have a lot of success. McKinley pitched a majority of our innings last year. She and Kiley will pitch a bulk of it this year to start. Ava is coming off an injury, so we’ll ease her back in, as well as Amelia. It’s nice to have that security that you can always go to somebody else in a bind and trust them. That will be big for us.”
As for replacing Seigler, Short and McElhaney — the team’s starters at shortstop, third base and catcher, respectively — Suarez sees it being a two-fold fix. She’s expecting the returning seniors to fill the leadership void and looking for a combination of players to step into the vacated starting spots.
“I’ve really seen a lot of leadership in our seniors coming up,” Suarez said. “I’m grateful for that. It’s nice to see those girls — Mattie Johnson, Anna Kate McElhaney and Madison Lingerfelt — step into those roles and become leaders for our team. …
“I think in terms of filling the spots we had lost, when you’re not seeing Kiley pitching or McKinley pitching or Ava pitching, you’re going to see a combination of those three at short and third. Behind the plate, we’re welcoming a transfer over from Woodland, Maggie Pruitt. You’ll see her filling in for Lauren McElhaney. Also her younger sister [Marly Pruitt], who’s a freshman, she’ll be doing some catching, as well. Obviously, that’s a big spot that we have to fill. We’re putting in the work, and we’re going to trust that they’re going to get the job done.”
The offseason has certainly been unlike any other in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic. As such, Suarez has some questions about her team's chemistry at the moment, but she expects some of those will be answered Tuesday, when Cartersville heads to Coahulla Creek for its preseason scrimmage.
“I’m thankful a majority of them play travel ball, so in terms of their skills, they haven’t missed a step,” Suarez said in regards to the offseason. “They’ve come out, worked hard in practice and looked good. One thing I do look for us to build on and get better at is working as a Cartersville team, building that camaraderie and learning how to play together with this group of players that we have. It’s something we’re working towards every day, and I expect it’s going to get better. …
“When we get that scrimmage under our belts, we’ll really know what we have.”