A lot of things are different in 2020, but the expectations Woodland head softball coach Colman Roberts has for his program haven't changed.
Entering his 18th season in charge of the Wildcats, Roberts expects this year's team to add to the current school record of four straight state playoff trips. His hope is that Woodland can go one step further than any of those previous teams have managed.
“Our goal is to make it to the state playoffs,” Roberts said. “We’ve done it four straight years, with three Sweet 16s. … [Reaching the Elite Eight in] Columbus is always in our conversation. They want to go; I want to go.”
Playing in a six-team region this season, Roberts feels pretty good about his team's chances of clinching a fifth consecutive berth. But he doesn't want to just qualify for the postseason, he wants to go as far as possible.
As such, Roberts has a tried and true method for getting his players ready to compete at the end of the season: Play the hardest schedule possible every step of the way.
Last year, the Wildcats faced a pair of state champions and a runner-up in the SCORE Invitational in Chattanooga. This season, Woodland is set to open and close the season against Class 6A Lassiter. In between, Roberts and Co. have five other games against either 6A or 7A programs, plus 2019 Class A-Public champion Gordon Lee. That's without even knowing their opponents for this year's edition of the Chattanooga tourney.
“I truly believe in it,” Roberts said of playing a tough schedule. “… I think it makes us better. Go beat up on somebody and feel good about yourself? I don’t believe in that. I believe in battling all year long. I think it really helps, especially at the end of the year.”
Woodland finished 21-12 last season, getting swept in the second round by Whitewater. The doubleheader sweep is one reason Roberts likes the new Region 7-AAAAA schedule, which includes a doubleheader and a single game against each team.
“First thing that popped up in my mind is that we play doubleheaders in the state tournament,” Roberts said. “If we’re lucky enough to play in it this year, the first day will be a doubleheader. The second day will be an ‘if.’ ...
“That will be big to prepare us for the state tournament. All of our coaches definitely agreed with that.”
He's also a fan of opting against holding a region tournament.
“I think it’s going to help our region,” Roberts said. “A lot of people are going to this.
“I think we’ve got a very good region. I think it’s going to be very competitive. … If we play to our ability and have a little luck here and there, I think we’ll be OK.”
With six key players gone from last season, Woodland will rely even more heavily on junior ace Lainey Baker, who was The Daily Tribune News Pitcher of the Year in 2019. Baker had 256 strikeouts while compiling a 19-7 record, 1.59 ERA and 1.06 WHIP in 28 appearances (26 starts).
Roberts hopes to stretch Baker out to where she is able to effectively pitch both games of a doubleheader at some point during the second half of the season. Until then, junior Cassie Jones will be asked to toss quite a few innings. Freshman left-hander Peyton Dorn will also see some time in the circle. Senior Kailey Baker, Lainey's sister, will do most of the catching.
Around the horn, seniors Hannah Miller (third base) and Ansley Evans (shortstop) will hold down the left side of the infield. When she's not pitching, Jones will play second base. Dorn and junior Jessica Ryan are set to split time at first base. In the outfield, juniors Michiah Hicks and Dylynn Motes are expected to flank senior center fielder Morgan Cooper, a Columbus State commit.
As he seems to always emphasize, Roberts said pitching, particularly from those behind Lainey Baker, and timely hitting will be two huge factors for his team. However, another key for the Wildcats, as it will be for every team this season, is avoiding the potential pitfalls that could have their season called off due to a COVID-19 outbreak.
“I was explaining to them, we need to follow all the rules — wear a mask, social distance — so we can possibly have a full season,” Roberts said. “That’s my main concern, to be honest with you.”
Roberts confirmed that he will retire from teaching after this school year, making him even more worried about a situation happening similar to March, when school buildings across the county were forced to close.
“I really hope everyone does what they’re supposed to do; we’re able to go to school all year; and we’re able to play sports,” Roberts said. “This being my last year teaching, I would like to be in the building all year.”
Regardless, Roberts, who has 365 wins in his career, doesn't plan on this being his final year coaching at Woodland.
“If they’ll have me back coaching,” Roberts said, “I would like to come back.”