Two years of ceding to power teams was supposed to pay off this season for Northern Nash, which concluded last season as the heavy favorite for 2014.
The Knights were slated to return nearly everybody from a surprising team that finished second in the Big East Conference, including center fielder Jessica Ricks, who was the best player in the area a season ago.
Northern Nash’s actual start to the year wasn’t as ideal. Two starters from last season’s team decided not to play softball, shortstop Suzie Sykes is out indefinitely with a troublesome back injury and to make matters worse, rain and cold weather has kept the Knights off the practice field.
“We haven’t been on our field but three times all year,” Northern Nash coach Greg Tharrington said. “We’re going to hit conference (games) and not have played but four or five games, and that’s not good.”
While Northern Nash does return Ricks, who was named the Telegram’s 2013 All-Area Player of the Year for a season in which she hit .560, as well as regulars Caroline Jenkins and Shelby Godwin, part of the Knights’ punch has been taken away.
Sykes was able to play through pain for Northern Nash’s basketball team, but swinging a bat puts significantly more stress on her back. She was Northern Nash’s second-best hitter a season ago, and the team does not know when – or if – she will be able to play.
“Without Suzie, we’re probably not as strong as I would’ve hoped,” Tharrington said. “We may get her back and be fine, but we’re not where we would be been with her. But we still should be very competitive.”
After one Big East loss in the past two seasons combined, Nash Central enters a new phase this season. The Bulldogs split the league title in 2012 and won it outright last season, but the bulk of those two teams is now gone.
Brittani Strickland is the only returning starter in the Bulldogs’ infield, and only two other players besides Strickland have significant varsity experience. This year’s Nash Central team will look much different from its teams of the past four years, Bulldogs coach Gary Smith said.
“We’ve still got a ways to go,” Smith said. “We’ve just got to play good defense because we don’t have the sticks like we’ve had in the past. We don’t have long ball people now.”
While the past Nash Central teams were excellent defensively, they also could hit, and mercy-rule games were a regular occurrence.
This year’s team will have to fight for its runs, Smith said.
“We have decent speed, which we haven’t had, but you have to get on base to be able to use it,” Smith said. “That’s why our defense has to improve. We have to scratch out runs.”
Southern Nash returns pitcher Amanda Wood and experience in its lineup. Slugger Madison Bell, Danyelle Noland and Tyreka Nicholson all have seen significant time for the Ladybirds, who won a share of the league title in 2012.
Further added to the mix are Wilson Hunt and Wilson Fike, both of which have several options at pitcher.
Northern Nash might have a slight edge as of now, but Big East coaches believe this has the potential for a wide-open year.
“It could be Northern, but Fike could end up one, or Hunt,” Smith said. “There are tough teams. You just never know.”
Nick Piotrowicz can be reached at 407-9952 or npiotrowicz @rmtelegram.com