There was plenty of disappointment surrounding Stanhope Elmore on the diamond last year but the Mustangs have wiped the slate clean and are focused on the new season. Both baseball and softball teams are returning more experience and the coaches hope to see that translate into more wins plus deeper runs in the postseason.
“It is a new team, new year, and we set new goals,” Stanhope Elmore softball coach Virginia Barber said. “Obviously, the disappointment is in the back of our minds but we don’t speak about it. We focus on this season. Our expectations are high for this season.”
Stanhope Elmore hosted the Class 6A Area 5 tournament last season but fell in the championship to Wetumpka before having an early exit at regionals in Oxford. Although she doesn’t want her team to focus on that, Barber knows that experience will help it take a step forward.
“We now have a varsity team that has all been to regionals; they have all been area champs, so they understand the pressure,” Barber said. “Last season we only had a handful that had been there.”
One of the key players returning with experience is No. 1 pitcher and leadoff hitter Neci King. After signing to play college softball at Grambling, King is ready to make some more noise in high school.
Last season, King batted .342 and led the Mustangs with 33 runs scored and 29 stolen bases. She was even more important in the circle, finishing with a 3.19 ERA in 129 1/3 innings pitched.
“The team believes in Neci so to have her back this year as our No. 1 again will be huge for us,” Barber said. “She commands the field in whatever position she is in which helps everyone. She has worked to get better over the summer in preparation to play Division I softball so that will help us as well.”
Newcomer Trista Breland along with Jerrica Wood and Morgan Carroll will throw some innings to relieve King.
Stanhope Elmore’s offense is hoping to take it up a notch after struggling to get big hits last year. As a team, the Mustangs finished with just a .364 slugging percentage and recorded only four home runs but Barber said she has seen improvement at the plate.
“We have worked on our power hitting,” Barber said. “We will have several able to power it up but we have also focused on roles at the plate and not just powering up the ball. They all understand their roles as hitters and what their strengths are to help us.”
Carroll was the top power threat by leadingthe team with 14 extra-base hits including two home runs last year. Barber said she also expects Megan Smith, Lindsey White and King to provide more power.
Stanhope Elmore’s baseball team is coming off its lowest win total in more than two decades but new coach Kaleb Shuman is looking to correct things quickly. Shuman said the Mustangs are not focused on the past.
“It feels like a whole different team to everybody,” Shuman said. “They have bought in to what we are building here and winning is a byproduct of that. If we continue on this path, winning is going to take care of itself.”
The Mustangs have plenty of returning talent and a few new faces set for a chance at extended playing time. Cody Simmons has dealt with some injuries in the past but he is expected to move to starting shortstop and Shuman is also expecting a good year from Simmons at the plate.
Conner Gregg, Sully Stevens and Chase Eddings lead the team in at-bats and all are expected to move into full-time starting roles. However, the three combined for a batting average of below .200 so the Mustangs will need to see more production and Shuman believes those three can provide it.
“I think right off the bat we will be better,” Shuman said. “You don’t really see the full form of an offense until midseason. There are still guys trying to break old habits. I expect it to be better but not full on until middle of the year.”
The Mustangs will also look to returners Cody Freeman, Collin Woodham and Josh Wilson to pitch some innings along with Zach Stevens and Eddings. Shuman said he likes having options.
“We have a couple of guys we consider top of the order,” Shuman said. “I like to play a lot of games so when you can throw a lot of guys, it allows you to keep everyone healthy. You have to be willing to do that.”