LOA softball looks to improve in 2018
If one happens to drive by Lake Oconee Academy’s softball field these days, it might appear the Lady Titans have dramatically increased their numbers.
What appears true to the eye, though, is not necessarily the case. The Lady Titans varsity team practices alongside LOA’s middle school squad. Each team gets its own attention at different intervals but, overall, the two teams appear to have a lot of cohesion.
That’s all part of LOA varsity head coach Julie Brooker’s plan to improve the program from top to bottom. At a recent practice, Brooker and players Elizabeth Holt, Cory Kimbrough and Kelli Stevens all used the word “chemistry” a few times.
“It's been a lot of stuff with our chemistry,” Stevens said regarding the focus during preseason practice. “Last year, our team chemistry wasn't as good as coach Brooker wants it to be so we've been trying to work together better and we've had some bonding experiences. … We had a lake day all together. That was really fun. Also, we're trying to get the varsity more included with the middle school and helping them so we can help build the program. Stuff like that.”
The players and coaches all want to improve the team’s chemistry. The team’s chemistry has lacked in the past. The team this summer used different methods to improve its chemistry. You get the point.
Comments like that may sound cliché but, for a team with only seven wins in its first two years at the varsity level, making the team a well-oiled unit is a necessity.
Those efforts are already proving fruitful.
“Honestly, we always have a long way to go but we're light years away from where we started last year,” Brooker said.
The efforts to make the Lady Titans jell were helped by the fact their roster is slimmer. Last year, there were 17 players on the team but, as of now, there are only 13. Brooker said that helps if for no other reason than she does not have to deal with “the distractions of who doesn't really want to be here.”
In order to help build up their players, LOA’s coaches established a handful of encouraging words that will, they hope, keep the players inspired.
One word is “believe.” Others include “commit,” “initiative,” “challenge,” “vision” and “100,” meaning the players should always give 100 percent effort.
The Lady Titans are among the first LOA athletic teams to deal with a brand-new problem the school will face from now on: the loss of seniors. Savannah Courter, Samantha and Stephanie Cervantes and Grace Cosby all graduated last year as part of LOA’s first-ever senior class.
Replacing them will be difficult, especially considering the Cervantes sisters were “two of the best athletes in the school,” as Stevens put it.
Brooker said she’s seen a few players step up and become the team’s new leaders. Two of them are Holt and Kala Jo Ogletree, who both attended Fellowship of Christian Athletes Captains Camp earlier this summer. Brooker said Holt and Ogletree were “transformed” by the camp.
“At Captains Camp, everyone was leaders,” Holt said. “Everyone knew what to do, and they knew how to lead each other. So, I've been trying to help other players if they need help, and even asking them for help, and pushing them to their limits and them pushing me.”
Two other important figures, according to Brooker, are Stevens and Landon Beall. Beall led the team with nearly a .400 batting average in 2017 while Stevens was forced into a new role – pitching – and performed well.
That talented duo earned second team all-region honors in GHSA Class A Region 7-A because of their work.
“It's a good start,” Stevens said. “It gives me motivation. It gives me something to work toward. I figured, if I could do it last year, hopefully, I can do it again this year. Kind of keep my intensity up and, hopefully, I can do better this year. It makes me work hard.”
LOA was outscored 287-132 last season – a 155-run differential. Brooker said she expects the offense to be much-improved this time out.
“Offensively, it's time for me to get creative and think outside the box,” she said. “We're going to be starting off the top of the order with a lot of lefty power and slapping and bunting. The core of the lineup through four, five, six, we've got a few girls that can swing the bat. With the strength training that we've done, we're getting stronger and that's paying off.”
Brooker also uses techniques taught to her at Georgia by the Lady Dogs’ longtime coach Lu Harris-Champer. One of those techniques forces players to slowly swing the bat and make note of their motions and make necessary adjustments.
For Kimbrough, successfully completing the season would be cause for celebration.
Each of the past two years, Kimbrough, the team’s ace pitcher, suffered injuries to her knee and left arm. Now, Kimbrough is healthy and excited for her junior campaign.
“I feel confident that I'll be able to make it through,” Kimbrough said. “Whatever happens, happens, and I've just got to do the best I can.”
When asked if she felt cheated as a result of those injuries, Kimbrough quickly answered, “Oh, yeah.”
Still, Kimbrough said she learned to appreciate the game during those times.
“I hated that,” she said. “I get out there and I'm looking good, and then I learn that I can't do it. That was really disappointing. … It motivates me to do my exercises that I got from it. If I do those, then it'll be good. But (the injuries) make me remember to enjoy every game and to make every game worth it and count.”
Brooker said she’s glad to have her primary starter healthy again.
“Cory is back and raring to go and it's going to be a really exciting thing,” Brooker said. “I don't want to put the cart before the horse but I'm very, very proud of her and the progress she's made.”
The Lady Titans do not shy away from high expectations.
Although they have experienced several blowout losses – a natural growing pain for a new program – the players’ heads are up.
“Our goal this year is to win 17 games,” Stevens said. “Coach Brooker always says, 'Set your goals high so that, even if you don't meet them, it's OK – just do better than the previous year,' so one of our goals that we made was to go to the Elite Eight. Even if we don't get there, it's OK, but, if we get close, that'll be, of course, a huge step from other years.”
That upbeat attitude led to the team setting what might be considered lofty goals from the outside looking in. But for the players and coaches, there is reason to anticipate the upcoming season, which begins this coming Monday at John Milledge Academy following a scrimmage at Prince Avenue Christian School on Friday.
Holt said she feels like LOA softball will “go to the next level” this season. The reason is simple.
“It feels like a different environment,” she said. “We have more chemistry. That's a good word for it.”
Check back next week for updates on the Lady Titans' opening week results