The Lady Longhorns wrapped up their pre-season preparations in a big way this past weekend, traveling to the annual Pigeon Forge Play Day to take on some big regional names as well as one familiar foe. Competing in four separate timed match-ups, Johnson County struck out three times in a row, but finished up on a very strong note with a one to nothing win over the Pigeon Forge Lady Tigers.
The win came right on the heels of a troublesome loss to conference rivals, Sullivan East, who pulled out the win by one run. Despite the different outcomes, Head Coach Dana Smith was still cautious to make any judgments, citing the fact that this is a very early learning period and does not accurately reflect where the team should be in over the course of the next few weeks.
We played really good defense that last game, Smith said. I felt good about everybodys effort. Their focus was there, they were ready, they played really hard, but I dont know that they really lost focus in the East game. We took our varsity out and put our JV in and that was a conscious decision. We made that decision prior, but it was hard to go there and play somebody that you play in the regular season. But, thats just part of it.
More importantly, the defeat at the hands of the Lady Patriots actually seemed to spur on the win over Pigeon Forge, causing the girls to re-energize their efforts especially on the defense. They had a meeting as a team prior to that game and they were just more focused, Smith said. Hopefully once they calm down and settle in they will be ok because I dont worry about defensive usually. I worry more about our offensive strategy right now and we didnt have an error on defense in that game. Were still working toward that consistency, to be consistent on both sides of the plate, but I was very pleased with the overall effort this weekend.
The defense was actually fairly sound in all of the games. Limited to one hour, most of the games made it into the fourth inning but were still low scoring even in the worst case. Playing first against the much larger Alcoa High School, the Lady Longhorns were still able to hold their opponent to just four runs, and in none of the other games made more than two. A great deal of this defensive success was in Johnson Countys strong pitching staff, led by veterans like Hope Nelson and Demi Blevins, as well as rising stars like Brianna Snyder who did an excellent job as a freshman last year. Adding in the return of Cindi Eddington to the mound, the Lady Longhorns have a fairly reliable group to fall back on with pitching.
On the offensive end Johnson County was hit and miss, literally. Some games saw fantastic contact, such as a double from Eddington in the first inning of the Alcoa game, or the single that earned Jayme Jennings an RBI during the fourth inning against East. However, there were plenty of strikeouts as well, with six in the Pigeon Forge game alone, despite the win.
At this early stage, developing a reliable lineup of hitters is one of Coach Smiths big goals and is also one of the reasons why these play days are so important to the regular season. According to Smith, I was very impressed at different times with different players because we were trying different things. We tried a little bit of everything and then we kind of settled into a lineup. I tweaked the lineup every so often and changed the batters around just to see what we could do and that was basically what we were trying to accomplish last weekend and this weekend as well, to see what were going to do starting tomorrow. We have a pretty good idea about some things in the lineup and things in the hitting lineup that we want to try now, but thats the only reason that we work so hard for these two weeks, just to see what gives.
Possibly more than anything the games serve as a good warm up for what lies ahead, and with many huge challenges down the road, the extra experience is more than welcome. Different things happened during the course of the tournament, Smith began. We tried different things to say yes that worked or no that didnt work. Thats why you do these things, to get time to figure them out. As a coach it is the best thing about the preseason. You can practice all you want but until you put them in a game situation with a different pitcher and a different lineup on the field against them you dont know. You want to see how they react and I was pleased with the way they reacted.
Yet even beyond the time on the field, this early road trip also serves another purpose, gauging and helping the players get to know one another and come together as a team. I think they had a really good time playing, Smith said. I think they always enjoy going to Pigeon Forge together because they can get away for a while, be in a cabin situation, and do those things that give them a little bit of a team understanding. Thats what we usually want to do at this time in the season, is to make sure that we kind of know whats going on, understand the chemistry of the team.