By ROCKY HIGGINBOTHAM

Kemper County Messenger



A year ago, Robert Luke took over the Kemper Academy fast-pitch softball program and stared at a roster with only 11 players and no seniors.

The Lady Rams might still be considered young, but depth shouldn't be an issue heading into the 2017 season which starts this weekend.

"We were in a position last year where all 11 we had early in the season, including the seventh graders, had to play," Luke said. "Now, we've got twice as many and several that could play in a bunch of different spots. It's quite a different situation."

Kemper will play in the Oak Hill Academy Tournament Saturday, taking on the winner of the host team and Hebron Christian School at 10 a..m., in the six-team, double-elimination tournament.

Next week, the Lady Rams are slated to visit Starkville Academy on Wednesday (Aug. 2) and host Oak Hill on Thursday (Aug. 3).

In 2016, Luke and KA did end up with three seniors after the season started, picking up a trio of players in their final season after Calvary Christian School closed its doors.

Only one of those contributed. But now, the 11 who started last year are all back.  A handful of others have joined the team, and four players transferred after Central Academy ceased operation.

"We're in an entirely different situation than last year, but still young," Luke said of his 22-lady roster, which includes only nine high school players. "We definitely have more options."

Luke said he hopes an offseason weightlifting program helped his squad in more ways than one in bonding last year's players with a quartet of their former rivals from Central.

"We started one week after school got out," he said. "There's no Central-KA thing anymore. We are one.

"It has been a good experience for everyone involved so far ... we've come together as a team."

Three key cogs from the last three years -- senior pitcher Kristen Cook, senior shortstop Libba Dudley and junior third baseman Jena Bobo -- are back. How the rest of the Lady Rams' lineup looks is still up in the air.

"A lot depends on these last few days of practice," Luke said last week. "A lot depends on how they perform. A lot depends on how a couple of different positions shake out. The great thing is that we have four, five, six kids who could help us in some different spots."

Catcher-outfielder Peyton Dawkins, a freshman transfer from Central who likely would have started, suffered a knee injury in practice and had an MRI scheduled for this week.

Freshman Jordan Gully has been working behind the plate, with freshman Sara Gaylord — another Central transfer — working at first base.

Second base is one of the spots up in the air, with as many as four players possibly seeing time including freshman transfer Anna Morgan King and senior Abby Rose.

A quartet of eighth-graders — Avery Luke, Shadow Goodrich, Breanna Eaves and Sydney Wilson — who collectively saw a good bit of time a year ago are also vying for playing time at second, first and in the outfield.

Junior Alyssa Gully could see time in left field and sophomore Karley Clark in center field. Gracie Coleman, the fourth Central freshman transfer, could help out in right field; and the Lady Rams are also depending on junior Allie Redmond, who started behind the plate last year and could add lots of versatility to the lineup.

Sophomore Abbi White, freshman Adriana Hall, eighth-grader Tori Stennis and seventh-graders Rylee Gully, Braylee Johnson and Cailea Johnson are all fighting for time, as well.

Coach Luke said Gaylord is expected to give Cook a breather from time to time in the circle, with Eaves and Avery Luke possibly seeing pitching action or throwing in junior-varsity games.

"We'll know more after this next week or two," Luke said.

Luke is being assisted again this season by Jack Bobo and Ben Dudley, while former Central head coach Sammy Lindsey and Richard Gaylord are also now Kemper assistants.