For the past two seasons, the Cass softball team has been taking some lumps with an extremely young squad. The hope has been that the playing time for an inexperienced group would pay dividends in the future.
Well, the future is now.
“We’ve been talking about for the past two years about how young we were and how excited we were for the future,” Colonels head coach Taylor Washington said. “It’s really exciting, because this is the future. This is what we’ve been talking about, what we’ve been excited about. I’m excited to see these girls as upperclassmen and see how far they’re going to take us this year.”
The bare minimum they should reach is the Class 5A state playoffs. Even if Cass was still in the deep, nine-team Region 7-AAAAA of the past four years, the Colonels would be a strong bet to clinch a playoff berth. Last fall, the team placed sixth in the region tournament.
With another year of experience under their belts and situated in a smaller, six-team region, Cass has a chance to be a dark horse candidate for a league title and should at least contend for a home series in the first round of state.
“Their expectation is to go to state,” Washington said. “They are holding their teammates accountable. ‘Hey everything has to be perfect. We have to go hard in every drill.’ Because the expectation is to get better every practice, work our way up and make the top four in the region. After that, we’ll set new goals and hopefully place in state.”
Unlike some of the more recent Colonels teams, this year's group has a strong senior class. Macenzie Dougharty and Haley Smith received plenty of playing time last season, and Cass has also added a pair of Woodland transfers in Kendyl Hardin and Madi Bentley.
The former Wildcats bring plenty of experience with them, having helped lead Woodland to a region championship in 2018. Hardin will likely anchor third base for the Colonels, while Bentley should slot in atop the team's pitching rotation.
“I think they’re both going to be huge for us and really help us out,” Washington said of Hardin and Bentley.
Even if Bentley becomes the team's ace, Cass will need a few pitchers to step up due to the changes in the region schedule this fall. With only six teams, all schools will play three games, including a doubleheader, against everybody else.
There also won't be a region tournament this year, adding even more importance to each individual matchup during the regular season.
“I’m really excited about the new region,” Washington said. “We’re not having a region tournament, which I think is going to be OK for us. We just have to make sure our pitching is doing well on those doubleheaders. As long as that is on the right track, I think we’re going to be fine.”
Joining Bentley in the rotation will be Dougharty and rising juniors Kylee Hembree and Rachael Lee. Washington said all of them are expected to throw "a good amount of innings.”
“They’re going to have to have more endurance than they’ve had in the past, because they might have to pitch one game and come on in relief the second game,” Washington said of her pitchers. “We need to make sure they’re in shape and they’re ready to go when it comes time for the doubleheaders.”
Overall, the junior class has been full of strong contributors since their freshman season. Hembree, Rachael Lee, Eryn Lee and Kelly Young all received either all-county status or honorable-mention recognition from The Daily Tribune News last year. That doesn't even include, among others, Saydee Najarro, who has been a solid catcher, and Haylee Dishmon, who Washington expects will take a big step forward this fall.
Even with all that talent in the 2021 and '22 classes, the rising sophomores might include the two best hitters on the team. That's saying something for an offense that should be able to put up runs in bunches.
As freshmen, Alexis Woods earned DTN Player of the Year after slashing .474/.505/.784 with 33 runs scored and 21 driven in, and Ansley Hight wasn't far behind in the POY race, having racked up 31 RBIs with a triple-slash line of .416/.456/.688.
Truly, barring a rash of injuries or a COVID-19 shutdown, nothing should be standing between Cass and a historic season. The talent is there, the experience is there and the belief is there for the Colonels to follow through on the promise that's been shown in glimpses the past couple of years.
“The mindset is just stay believing that they are good enough to do it, we are going to do it and they’re not going to accept anything less than going to state,” Washington said. “They have it in their minds that it’s not even an option not to go to state this year, and I think that makes the biggest difference.”