Cole Downey

Caleb Turrentine / The Observer Elmore County’s Cole Downey will return as a middle infielder for the Panthers.

Elmore County’s softball and baseball teams combined for 40 wins last season but only three came during the postseason. With plenty of talent returning on both teams, the Panthers are looking to keep their expectations high with a hope of making some noise in the playoffs this time around.

“Our focus is to be as good as we can get,” ECHS softball coach Terry Nicholas said. “Our expectations have been met with great effort and focus. Collectively, we are still young but when that first pitch is thrown, no one cares how old you are. We are excited to get started.”

Nicholas is entering his first season but he has plenty of experienced players to rely on.

All-state first baseman Madison Britt is returning and could be due for an even bigger season. Britt finished with a .483 batting average last year and led the team with five homeruns and 43 RBIs but the Panthers are hoping to have an even better lineup around Britt so those numbers can be even higher.

“She’s going to have some more help in the lineup,” Nicholas said. “Everybody does better with a little bit more protection because they can’t pitch around you as much. I think she’ll see a lot more pitches this year.”

Ella Watts, Maci Curlee and Madelyn Becker all hit above .365 last season and are expected to be big contributors again. The Panthers hope to see improvements from the returning players but they also expect to get some help from their newcomers.

Edgewood transfer Kelley Green just basketball but Nicholas said he already knows she will make a quick impact. Green hit .402 and stole 22 bases while starting in right field for the Wildcats last year.

“She’s a great player and she’s going to contribute,” Nicholas said. “She may have to knock some rust off but she’s a worker so it’s not going to take her long to find her groove.”

Anna Catherine Segrest and Hadli Roberts are two more Edgewood transfers expected to start for the Panthers. Elmore County will also add Aubrey Allen who is expected to bring more depth to the pitching rotation.

Curlee was the No. 1 option last season but Allen has been pushing for that top spot. Nicholas said it’s a good problem to have and he expects both players to pitch plenty of innings but the team has not picked a No. 1 starter yet.

“We’re finding that out in intrasquads right now,” Nicholas said. “They are both quality pitchers and we have some younger arms that will take a lot of innings. It takes more than one.”

Elmore County had its winningest baseball season under coach Michael Byrd last year but the Panthers fell one victory shy of the postseason. They are hoping to redeem themselves but it will not be easy as they to replace six starters.

“We have started winning games so the expectation is to keep winning games,” Byrd said. “At this point, we have to keep plugging in and replacing. It will be a different look from last season but I think there are less questions about the ability and more about getting everyone in the right spot.”

The biggest hole was left by all-state pitcher Austin Downey but the Panthers hope to have an easy answer to that. Although Downey may be irreplaceable, Byrd believes he has a more reliable staff this season to take off some of the pressure.

Landon Maynard was the No. 2 for the Panthers last year and returns as the top guy on the mound. Zach Jones, Brady Lewis and Zach Nichols are expected to compete for innings as well.

“Austin was a big one to lose,” Byrd said. “The good news is he was the only one we lost on the mound and we have Landon back. They all bring something different to the plate and that helps.”

Sean Darnell is also expected to see some time on the mound but Byrd said he can contribute from anywhere on the field. Darnell was expected to take on a big role last season before an injury but he returns with high hopes for his sophomore season.

“Getting him back will be huge,” Byrd said. “He can play anywhere and he hits in the middle of the lineup. He knows how to pitch. He just lives and breathes baseball.”

Darnell is expected to join Maynard, Brody Ward and Cole Downey as the biggest threats at the plate. Although the Panthers are still setting a starting lineup, Byrd is confident in anyone he has going to the plate.

“We may not be as explosive but Nos. 1 through 9, we will be more versatile,” Byrd said. “We have solid hitters and there is no one that’s an out every time. That makes it a little easier.”

Caleb Turrentine is a sports writer for Tallapoosa Publishers Inc.