MARY PERSONS 2019 VARSITY AND JUNIOR VARSITY SOFTBALL TEAMS: Pictured on the front row from left to right: Riley Dunn, Madi McKinnon, Nazari Jackson, Karsin Bass, Mackenzie Childs, Jaycee Justice, Taylor Edwards and Hailey Jones. Pictured on the middle row from left to right: Victoria Vining, Alissa Rozier, Lauren DeFore, Emma Cantrell, Anna Woodgeard, Ansley Brooks, Katelyn Shipman, Nidhi Patel and MacKenzie Ryals. Pictured on the back row from left to right: head coach Hannah Grossman, Makayla Ford, Trystin Brummett, Mallory Turner, Emmalee Hayman, Blaklee Shortt, Taylor Shortt, Lily Martin, Emma Heath, assistant coach Jan Collins and assistant coach. (Photo/Richard Dumas)   

With a diamond full of experienced returners, the Mary Persons softball squad is expected to field its best squad since the Lady Dogs captured the program’s lone region championship in 2016.

The Lady Dogs return their top two pitchers in seniors Lauren DeFore and Mallory Turner as well as a potent lineup led by junior shortstop Alissa Rozier, who has 12 homers in her first two seasons on varsity.

Senior Emmalee Hayman, who has started mostly at first base and designated hitter in the last two seasons, will slide in as MP’s catcher in 2019, replacing her older sister Aleah, who graduated after two sterling campaigns behind the plate. Hayman, who hit .278 with 1 homer and 18 RBIs in 2018, also figures to hit in the heart of MP’s lineup, likely in the No. 3 hole.

Across the infield, the Lady Dogs will feature four more experienced returners with junior Victoria Vining manning first base. Vining, who started for much of the latter half of 2018, batted .250 with 6 RBIs in 2018. Another junior, Karsin Bass, will start at second base for the second straight year after batting .208 with 12 RBIs as a sophomore. Rozier, who primarily started in leftfield in her first two varsity campaigns, will move in to play shortstop full-time as a junior. Rozier hit .368 as a sophomore while leading MP with 4 homers and 33 RBIs. A sophomore, Jackson, will take over for the graduated Destiny Middleton, now playing for North Carolina, at third base. Middleton started all four years at the hot corner, but Jackson, who mostly played rightfield as a freshman, should be well-equipped to take her place. Jackson was a star at the plate in her first varsity season, batting .283 with 2 home runs and 24 RBIs.

MP head coach Hannah Grossman said DeFore and Turner, who have a combined 5 career at-bats, have both improved at the plate this off-season and whichever one isn’t on the mound could start in the outfield. Other starting outfielders include a pair of returning juniors, Emma Cantrell, who split time between leftfield and shortstop in 2018, and Emma Heath. Cantrell, a standout defensive player, batted .220 with 7 RBIs in 2018 while Heath, one of the squad’s most consistent hitters, batted .282 with 15 RBIs.

Varsity reserves in 2019 include: juniors Hailey Jones, Lily Martin, Katelyn Shipman and Taylor Shortt as well as sophomores Taylor Edwards, Makayla Ford and MacKenzie Ryals. Two freshmen, Ansley Brooks and Mackenzie Childs, will also play on the varsity in 2019 and could even crack the starting lineup as outfielders. Another freshman, Anna Woodgeard, is expected to see varsity innings on the mound.

MP’s fifth-year head coach Hannah Grossman said she’s excited about her 2019 squad’s chances to get back to the top of the region heap.

“We lost three really good seniors this past year, but we’ve been working hard this summer,” Grossman said. “Our goal is to take region this year, make it to the Elite Eight at least and on from there. The way we’re looking we’ve still got things we’ve gotta do, but with this team we’ve got, we’ve got a lot of potential. We’ve got some freshmen coming in that are trying to step up that I think are going to help us. So I think we’ve got a good chance.”

Grossman said having nine players who have extensive field experience has been helpful this pre-season.

“Since we started off we’ve been looking good,” Grossman said of early season practices. “The returning players, they’re learning. So where we started this year we’re ahead because they remember stuff that we’ve gone over in the past. Instead of re-teaching a lot of the same things, we’re where we finished off last season, if not better.”

MP fell painfully short of a Region 2-AAAA championship in 2018, losing a Best-of-3 championship series at West Laurens by a 5-4 score in 8 innings of the deciding contest. For the Lady Dogs to break through in 2019, MP will have to topple the talented Lady Raiders, but Grossman cautioned that other region squads like Spalding and Howard will be strong this year as well because of outstanding ace pitchers.

“Everyone in region is pretty good this year,” Grossman said. “Everyone’s just about even. So it’s going to be a battle all the way across the board for each spot for all of us to even get into the state playoffs. No game is going to be easy.”

The Lady Dogs were scheduled to open their season with a non-region road contest at Crawford County at 5:55 p.m. on Tuesday. MP will then host another non-region squad, Monticello, at 5 p.m. on Thursday in its home opener. The Lady Dogs will continue their busy early-season slate with a non-region road contest at Lamar County at 3:30 p.m. on Friday. The Lady Dogs will then play a non-region road doubleheader at Pike County on Saturday, facing Griffin in Game 1 at 9:30 a.m. and Stratford Academy in Game 2 at 11:30 a.m. MP will return home to face non-region Pike County at 5:55 p.m. on Monday, Aug. 12 before heading back on the road to square off with rival Jackson at 5 p.m. on Tuesday, Aug. 13.

Meanwhile, the MP JV softball squad was scheduled to open its season at 4:30 p.m. on Tuesday at Crawford County. The JV Lady Dogs will then have a week off before facing Jackson on the road at 6:30 p.m. on Tuesday, Aug. 13.