LUMBERTON — Returning virtually everyone off its starting lineup from a successful season last year, the Lumberton softball team is ready to have the bulls eye on its back this season.
After winning the Robeson County Slugfest, the Southeastern Conference tournament and the two county co-Players of the Year back, head coach Mackie Register likes his team’s ability to handle the best shot that everyone will throw at them, but success isn’t given to this team.
“When we play people, I know we are going to get their best shot. Everybody is going to be gunning for us,” Register said. “When you return pretty much everybody that you have in your lineup and we went 20-5, you expect to have a pretty good season, but it doesn’t mean you’re going to have one.”
The Lady Pirates return the arm and the bat of the conference co-Player of the Year junior Morgan Britt and the power hitting and solid defense of junior infielder Madison Canady. Both shared the honor of the county’s top player last year and are two of eight returners coming back this season.
With all that talent coming back from a 20-5 team that made it to the second round of the NCHSAA state playoffs, Register sees strength for his team all across the board, although they still has to work on getting to the level he wants them to play at.
“We’re going to be good at all three phases. We’re going to be able to hit the ball, we’re going to play good defense and we’re going to get good pitching. That’s a pretty good combination,” he said. “We’ve got a lot of work to do still and we’ve still got a lot of work to do in practice. We’ve got to get some people some time at positions and it’s a work in progress.”
The heart of the lineup that includes Canady, who batted .561 with 31 RBIs and six homers, followed by senior LeeAnn Nobles, who batted .342 with 29 RBIs and four home runs, raises problems for opposing pitchers, and the duo likes how that order in the lineup causes teams to have problems.
“They can walk me, but they can’t pitch around LeeAnn so I take the walk and that’s helping me and the team,” Canady said. “I let her hit me in.”
“If they don’t want to pitch to her, they’re coming to me instead,” Nobles said. “If they don’t pitch to me, they are going for her. It goes back and forth each game.”
Canady’s goals include repeating the success from last year and extending the season further this year.
“I’m expecting to win the conference, conference tournament and go deeper into the playoffs than we did last year,” she said. “I’m expecting big things out of us this year.”
Britt had a 1.88 ERA, good enough for best in the conference, and also hit .375 with 20 RBIs as season ago. Kasey West returns after a 39-hit season last year. The numbers the pair in the Lumberton battery had were impressive, but Register knows duplicating or surpassing those stats will be tough.
“Some of them, the way their stats and stuff last year were, I’d be OK if they matched what they did last year,” Register said. “Sometimes it’s tough to repeat what you did when you had a year.”
While crossing into new territory last year winning the Slugfest and the conference tournament championship, new goals have already came into the sights of the Lady Pirates.
“One of them was Hoggard, we had never beat them the other day so one of them is checked. Conference tournament has got to be one of those boxes too, and getting past the second round of the state playoffs,” Register said of the team’s goals.
Pirates to rely on experience and pitching
Third-year coach Jeff McLamb welcomes the most experienced roster he has had during his stint as the Lumberton baseball coach this season.
To get the experience this year, McLamb hopes the growing pains the Pirates had last year will help them rebound from a 7-15 season a year ago.
“For the most part, we are juniors, but a lot of them played varsity as sophomores. They’ve been here and seen it,” McLamb said. “It’s a very experienced group, mixed in with those seniors.”
Five of the six seniors on the roster return to the team from last year, led by infielders Tyler Jacobs and Caleb Wilkerson occupying big spots near the top of the order.
Jacobs and Dylan Bruce, a junior who hit .263 last season, will be the top two in the lineup, and will anchor the middle infield, with Bruce at shortstop and Jacobs at second base.
“You expect big things for them in the middle (of the infield) and at the top of the order as well. They’ve got to get on for those guys for our guys to be successful,” McLamb said.
Those two will set the table on the base paths with the heavy hitters in junior Kris Allen, Parks Ledwell and Wilkerson. Allen led the Pirates last season at the plate with a .382 batting average with six RBIs and four extra base hits.
“He’s going to be our No. 3-hitter, he’s going to be the guy we need to drive in runs and hit the ball hard,” McLamb said. “He’s going to have to carry the load hitting the ball, him and Caleb Wilkerson.”
Allen will start at first base and see time on the mound at times as well.
Pieces of the offense are there, but McLamb sees the Pirates’ strength coming from their pitching staff, with Ledwell and Seth Odum as key pieces on the pitching staff. The pair combined to throw for over half of the number of innings the Lumberton pitchers threw for last year.
Odum had a 2.31 ERA with 12 strikeouts last year in 36 1/3 innings and Ledwell had a team-best 38 strikeouts.
“They’re going to be our horses that we rely on the most and Kris Allen, who didn’t throw much last year, is going to have to chip in and Jordan Smith, who is a sophomore, he’s going to have to throw a lot of innings as well,” McLamb said.
Those four arms, along with the experience out in the field will have to live up to the lofty goals that are set out every year for the coaching staff.
“We’ve got all our pitching back so that’s a big thing. We’re definitely going to have to rely on pitching and defense this year,” McLamb said. “We’ve set the standards high, and are trying to win the conference. We’ve got a good group coming back so we’ve got high expectations.”