Senior pitchers lead Lady Bulldogs softball in ‘24

Senior pitchers lead Lady Bulldogs softball in ‘24

Photos By: Peggy Barger

GHS Head Coach Donald Hart and his 2024 softball team will start their season next Monday, February 26th, at home against Fayetteville. Filling the circle and toeing the rubber for that game will be hurler Tori Howard or Haley McAdams, or both. The two seniors will be the twin pillars upon which Hart and his Lady Bulldogs will build their hopes for a successful campaign this spring. They also represent two-thirds of the entire senior class on the varsity roster that lists just Howard, McAdams, and Bri Taylor.

That list has 18 names, including the three seniors, six juniors, five sophomores, and four freshmen, so the available talent pool trends young with limited varsity experience. But fast-pitch softball is heavily influenced by pitching in a sport with no pitch limit, unlike baseball. A dominant pitcher can absolutely shut down opposition bats and pile up strikeouts like former GHS hurler Victoria Taylor, who notched several no-hitters on the high school level before playing college ball.

But Taylor was the exception, and most prep teams don’t have pitchers of her caliber on the roster. In fact, most teams don’t have more than one quality pitcher on their roster, while Greenwood is fortunate to have two. Not only is that a nice hedge against injury to the team’s primary hurler, but it provides a solid relief alternative should the starter begin to tire or have a bad day. Last fall McAdams signed to play college softball at Ouachita Baptist University in Arkadelphia. Coach Hart says that Howard and McAdams will get all the starts against conference foes this season.

As usual, the Lady Bulldogs will play seven league doubleheaders this spring, including four at home and three on the road. Greenwood opens 5A West play at Russellville on March 12th, but the next three doubleheaders against Van Buren, Harrison, and Siloam Springs will all be at home. They then travel to Mountain Home, host Alma, and go to Greenbrier to conclude their regular season. The state tournament will be hosted by Harrison in early May.

In his first year at the helm of the Lady Bulldogs, Coach Hart took his team to the state semifinals before losing to eventual 5A champion Benton, 1-0. Benton’s Alyssa Houston outdueled Tori Howard, who gave up only one run in the tough-luck loss. Houston threw a no-hitter, falling one batter short of a perfect game when a hitter reached base on a third strike passed ball by the catcher. She also fanned 14 Greenwood batters, clear evidence of what a dominant pitcher can do.

Howard was nearly as good, though not as overpowering, scattering seven hits and working around an error to strand six baserunners. She also fanned three Benton hitters. A two-sport athlete in both volleyball and softball, Howard will be counted on even more to shut down enemy bats during her senior season, along with McAdams. Howard was All-State last season and McAdams was All-Conference. Both girls throw righthanded.

The 2023 Lady Bulldogs finished the season 22-9 overall, second place in the 5A West behind Van Buren, winning 10 of their last 12 games. The program lost four notable senior starters to graduation – Ireland Cooper, Rylee Cowart, Charlize Taylor, and Paige Pugh. Three other 2023 juniors did not return for their senior season for various reasons. But with two proven pitchers at his disposal, Coach Hart hopes to take his newest squad one step further than last season, all the way to the state finals.

Hart is also pleased with his overall numbers. He has 27 girls altogether and 18 on the varsity squad, “We’re kind of bursting at the seams, but that’s a good problem to have,” he said. At the same time, he lamented the lack of junior high softball in this part of the state, forcing developing players to be ready in ninth grade to compete for a varsity spot against much older and more experienced teammates. “It’s unfortunate that most of the junior high programs are in the Northeast and Southeast parts of the state and are too far away,” he explained. Because of varsity doubleheaders, the number of junior varsity games is also limited, something the coach hopes to see changed at the conference level in the future.

The second-year GHS head coach does get a look at incoming freshman and sophomores during the month of June when the Arkansas Activities Association allows them to play on eight days with no limit on how many games each day. Most of those 12 to 15 games are against teams from Oklahoma, with a few from Arkansas. The coach must then step aside for the mandatory summer dead period while most of his players continue honing their skills playing independent travel ball. At some point in their prep careers, most top softball pitchers also take advantage of private coaching to perfect their art. He also starts working with his softball-only girls in September while some of their teammates are participating in volleyball, basketball, and even cheer.

Howard and McAdams have both proven themselves to be reliable strike throwers, though neither one is really known as a flamethrower. According to Coach Hart, McAdams has more potential as a strikeout artist, but both hurlers generally try to induce soft contact and allow their defense to work for them. In both softball and baseball, it’s still mostly pitching and good defense that wins games and championships.      

“Both pitchers are going to keep us in ballgames,” said the coach. “They are different pitchers, but both are above average in speed. Tori is more of a contact pitcher who hits her spots well and mixes it up. She’s kind of like [MLB Hall of Fame pitcher] Greg Maddux. She moves the ball around and has the best control. I also feel like her velocity has improved a little.

“Haley has a little more power and speed. She’s been working on some new spin pitches and has looked good in scrimmages so far. Both had exceptional seasons last year and I have the same high expectations for them this season. I’m very glad to have them.” Hart also has sophomore Alyssa Lovell developing as a third arm. She will be used mostly in relief.

Of course, pitching is not everything, even in fastpitch softball. Teams must still score runs to win, and the GHS girls expect to do plenty of that this season as well with several promising bats returning, including Howard, McAdams, and fellow senior Bri Taylor among them. If this week’s exhibition game against Fort Smith Southside is any indication, the GHS offense will be just fine. The Lady Bulldogs plated 26 runs against the Lady Mavericks.

Going around the diamond, Hart said his starting catcher will be freshman Emily Creason. “She’s the strongest kid in our program with a great arm and a good bat. She’s got speed on the bases and she’s going to help us tremendously. I look for her to have a good season. Behind her we have another freshman, Emily Daggett, but she’s in wrestling so I haven’t seen her since October.” Hart acknowledged that Creason still needs to develop as a leader on the field, but that will come with experience.

“At first base will be Tori Howard, when she’s not in the circle, then Haley [McAdams] will play first when Tori is pitching. Haley played there for me last summer and kind of opened my eyes. We need some senior leadership on the field, and I think both of them will do a great job for us. I’ve really liked what I’ve seen in our scrimmages.”

At second base is junior Rylee Floyd. “She got some limited varsity action last year and has a super high softball IQ and is very passionate about it. I feel like she will do a good job and is up to the task. Behind her is a freshman, Ryleigh Decker. She’s just a phenomenal athlete with speed and plays infield and outfield.”

“Bri Taylor is our third baseman and has a good bat. She’s been working hard to improve her defense. She also has a good softball IQ,” offered the coach. Taylor was also selected as All-Conference honorable mention in 2023. “She hit .313 last year, which is pretty good, and I look for her to improve on that number. She will hit in an RBI spot, probably the four-hole. I look for her to drive in a lot of runs.” Daisy Parker, a sophomore, is also a versatile player who will back up at third and play outfield.

“Our shortstop is a junior, Brilea Rofkhar,” the coach continued. "She played junior varsity last year but has made a lot of improvements. She’s got a big arm and is a field general. She does a lot of talking and communicating and her bat has improved tremendously from last year. She’s probably one of the smoothest middle infielders I’ve had, and I look for her to do a great job this season.” A sophomore, Kaylyn Jones, will be the backup at shortstop.

In left field will be the above-mentioned Daisy Parker, who started in the same position last season, hitting in the three hole. “She has speed and hit just under .300,” said Hart. “But I’m moving her to the leadoff spot this year. She also has good softball IQ and I look for her to have a big season.” Victoria Griffith will backup Parker in left field. While working to improve her defense, her bat has the sophomore on Hart’s list for designated player (DP), the equivalent of the designated hitter in baseball.

In centerfield will be the coach’s daughter, Saylor Hart, a junior. “She’s seen a little action in centerfield. She’s got speed and is probably one of our better players at tracking fly balls. She’s been working really hard on her bat this summer and has been doing a better job [hitting]. My backup there is freshman Taelyn Martin. She’s fast and fundamentally sound for a freshman. She’s going to have to catch up to the speed of the high school game, but I look for her to be a big part of our program in the future,” said the coach.

In right field Hart has Ryleigh Decker penciled in as the starter. “She’s super fast and a phenomenal athlete with a great bat. She can cover a lot of ground. I didn’t know I was getting an athlete like that, but she has really caught my eye. Her backup is Emmy Burton. She played a little for us last year at DP and outfield. She’s a great kid and a slap hitter. She will see some time in the outfield and in the DP role.” Burton was a member of the state championship GHS cheer squad and has only recently returned to softball. Another reserve outfielder for the Lady Bulldogs is junior Clara Burton.

In high school softball each team is allowed one girl that plays defense only and one that only hits. Coach Hart has several players on his DP hitters list including Emmy Burton, Victoria Griffith, Alyssa Lovell, and sophomore Lakyn Dawson. Hart’s provisional starting lineup will include Daisy Parker leading off, followed by Haley McAdams in the two hole and Tori Howard in the third slot. At cleanup will likely be Bri Taylor with Ryleigh Decker batting fifth.

“Six, seven, eight, and nine are not nailed down,” said the coach, but they will include Rylee Floyd, Emily Creason, Saylor Hart, and Brilea Rofkhar. “I like someone in the nine hole who can flip the lineup over with a little speed.” Rofkhar and Creason have both fulfilled that role before and could do so again this season.

Speaking of speed, Hart is bullish on his team’s potential in that area, both on the basepaths and on defense. “I think our team speed is definitely up from last year. I’ve got multiple kids who can lay down a bunt and beat it out, and the outfield has speed all the way across. We’ll be pushing the envelope with stolen bases.

“We’re not a homerun hitting team,” he continued. “We’re going to hit line drives. But everybody brings some power with their bat. I think our lineup is better from a strength standpoint and I feel good about that.” The coach added that his team is working to cut down on strikeouts and make more contact. “Our plate discipline has got to be better, and we need to hit our pitch and not the pitcher’s pitch. We want to make contact and make the defense work.”

As for the conference competition, Coach Hart said he believes it will be the same four or five teams that fought it out last season for the four playoffs spots. “Van Buren has everybody back but their pitcher, and they had a very good offense and defense last year. Harrison has their pitcher back, so I expect them to be very competitive. Mountain Home lost their good pitcher, but I saw them playing this summer and they looked pretty scrappy, so I expect them to reload. You also can’t leave Russellville out. They split with us and Van Buren last year. Obviously, we want to try to win the conference, but we have to do that on the field.”

As for the overall health of the GHS program since his arrival, Hart is pleased. “I think our team chemistry is much better. We’re changing the culture, and they are more comfortable with me. There was tension with me coming in after Coach [Ronnie] Sockey and wanting to be successful. Coach Sockey ran a very successful program, so there was some pressure on me. But I am more relaxed, and the girls are more relaxed. I really like where our program is at. [They’ve] worked really hard in the weight room and on fundamentals. They are very coachable, and they are ready to get out there and try their skills.” Coach Hart is assisted by Mike Possage and Dianne Popp.

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