Radford has a new coach. Auburn will look to continue their strong program and Christiansburg is looking to improve on last year’s high school softball season.
Marissa Puckett served as assistant coach last year for Radford and was named the head coach in the fall when Dink Morris retired.
She is no stranger to the diamond after being a member of a Floyd County High School softball team that had a lot of success. Puckett was four-year starter in softball, being named both Three Rivers District and West 2A Region player of the year as a senior. She was also named first team all-state and played in the Virginia High School Coach’s all-star game as a second basemen.
So, Puckett is ready for her own chance as a head coach.
The team finished 10-11 in 2016 and will have to replace seven players from last year’s squad.
“All seven players that graduated were starters or played in the majority of the games throughout last season. Not only did they contribute a great deal offensively and defensively but they had a lot of experience under their belts. The entire senior class made an impact on the many positions we had to fill this year,” the new coach said.
The loss of those seniors has Puckett scratching her head.
“With the seven senior’s departure, we only had six returners and many spots to fill. We have added several from the freshman class to our roster. Connor Herndon and Haley Powell are the two lone seniors on this year’s team and following them is Bailee Cox and Ashley Fisher, as returning juniors. Sophomores Reagan Sellers and Tiohna Eaves round out the returners,” she said.
Puckett expects this year’s group to work hard and scrap for every game. “We are very young but our girls have worked hard in the off-season and right now to play competitive softball. We play in an extremely tough conference that brags the back-to-back state champion Parry McCluer, among other talented teams, but we have girls that genuinely encourage each other to become better every day. They are good teammates to each other and complement each other well. We hope to catch several teams by surprise,” she said.
With Parry McCluer coming off another state championship last year, Puckett expects them to be head and shoulders above the rest with Auburn and Craig County closely behind.
“I’d look for them (Parry McCluer) to be a tough group again this year but our conference is loaded with teams like Auburn and Craig County making it even more challenging. Overall, we play great competition, which makes us a better team. With our conference, it’s a toss-up. We’re excited and looking forward to the possibilities this season will bring,” she said.
Meanwhile in Riner, Auburn’s cupboard is filled with talent. The Eagles and Coach David Hurd did lose four key components in Makayla Burlingame (three times all-state first team), Andrea Tiller (two times all-state first team), Autumn Shortridge and Paige Fisher.
But it doesn’t look like they will lose a beat, with three early wins already this season, including a 31-1 ball game against Eastern Montgomery.
Coach David Hurd said youngsters grew up last year and will make a big impact this year.
“Several players have an opportunity to stand out. Abby Wilson is coming off of a huge freshman year and is poised to play an important role again. Skyler DeHart and Leah Harrison have big shoes to fill in the circle with the graduation of Makayla Burlingame, but both are capable and can get some help from Tori Boyd in the circle,” he said.
Cortney Cochran seems ready for a greater role than last season and could hit near the middle of the order. McKenzie Lawrence started in CF last year and showed moments of great promise with four home runs and stellar defense.
Carlee King is back to build off of her four-homerun season and her steady production in the middle of the order. Olivia Boyd had a big season last year with a slugging percentage over .700, and Kayla Altizer is always on base and it makes an impact.
“Lacey Bishop is back at second base and is one of the better pure hitters around. She does a great job of hitting the ball hard all over the field,” Hurd said. “Freshmen Jaylin Shepherd, Adyson Huff, and Tori Boyd are looking to carve out roles and make an impact. All are good athletes and good players. Shepherd looks to be a starter in the lineup.”
He also expects Emily Scaggs to be a good first baseman and hitter before the season is over.
Hurd, who is in 18th year at the school with a record of 232-135, said expectations are high. “We have entered into a period where we have high expectations for our program. This year will be no different, we expect to compete for the Conference championship and beyond,” he said.
The team finished 20-5 last season. This season, Hurd sees Parry McCluer (two straight state titles) and Craig County as formidable opponents this season.
“Both teams have very good pitching and have enough offense to pose an issue,” he said.
In Christiansburg, the rebuilding continues but Coach Nathan O’Dell is high on this year’s team in only his second year at the helm. Last year, the team finished with a 7-14 record and lost only two players from the roster.
Key returners include: Catcher Jesse Burleson, Pitcher Courtney Wright, First baseman Abby Boyd, second baseman Aaliyah Benson, shortstop Kelsey Hall, third baseman Elise Levin, left fielder Emma O’Dell, centerfielder Alexis Hagy and right fielder Sydney Jackson.
The team includes three seniors, six juniors, one sophomore and one freshman.
O’Dell believes his team will be very competitive in every game this season. “One of our team goals is to double our wins from last season,” he said.
O’Dell also mentioned senior Burleson who committed last month to play softball at Winthrop University. “Having the recruiting process behind her, she’ll be able to play free of the stressors that may affect her performance. She has developed into a strong hitter, fielder, and catcher and I look for her to really shine this season,” he said.
Burleson has been a four year starter for the Blue Demons.
Christiansburg will see plenty of competition in conference play this year as O’Dell sees Patrick, Abingdon, Hidden Valley, Cave Spring and Blacksburg as all much improved.
(Editor’s note: Coaches from Blacksburg and Eastern Montgomery did not return questions for this story.)