By Thomas Sellers Jr.
For the second time in less than 5 years, the Tipton-Rosemark Academy Lady Rebels entering the season as the reigning Division II-A Softball champions.
In 2012, the Lady Rebels returned to State but went 0-2 in Murfreesboro. After winning it all last season, TRA graduated four seniors and return seven players who played key roles in the championship coming back to Flag City.
“I don’t see it as pressure,” TRA Head Coach Johnie Sanfratello said. “I don’t see as pressure because last year nobody expected us to do what we did. If it’s pressure, I look forward to it. I look forward to having the bullseye. We can’t avoid expectations this year.”
Sanfratello said his main challenge this season will be keeping his girls committed to returning back to the top of the State. With a challenging schedule featuring tournaments in Jackson and Cookeville, and a area showdown with the Munford Lady Cougars, the second-year coach said his team will be battled tested come May.
Those games will be used to improve six freshmen on the team including five new faces Ashlynn Hinshaw, Emily Fisher, Lizzie Diggs, Bayley Jo May and Shelby Clifton.
The sixth freshman on the squad was the second leader in wins last season as an eighth grader in Rachel Whitley.
“Losing Ashton, that was a huge lost for us,” Sanfratello said. “But she brought Rachel along better than I could ever have. I see Rachel being a clutch like Ashton was last season.”
Ashton Needham graduated from TRA with two State titles and she was the leader in wins for 2014 while batting .450.
Needham sent a lot of time driving in speedsters like Bethany Berger and Taylor Beasley. That duo returns to anchor the top of the lineup.
Berger, who plays middle infield, is one of two seniors. Jordyn Thornell provides senior leadership in the outfield having made the game-saving catch in the championship contest last season.
Other key returners are Anna Claire Williams, Sarah Kate Downing and Katie Diggs. The veteran players will help incorporate the newcomers into the rotation.
In addition to the challenge of developing the freshmen, Sanfratello has to replace the heart of his defense with the departure of catcher Sally Downing and shortstop Jordan Collins.
Clifton has emerged as the replacement for Downing behind the plate. Sanfratello said she has a productive bat to go along with her defensive skills.
The process of replacing Collins is still a work in progress with May being groomed for a spot in the middle infield.
The do-it-all approach of Needham has left a spot open at first base as well. Fisher has been given a look at that position.
With all the pieces falling into place and a tough schedule ahead of them, Sanfratello said the Lady Rebels can be back in Murfreesboro winning games in May.
“Last year when the girls started to buy into things, we started to pick up things fast,” Sanfratello concluded. “The older girls know we have to play these tough tournaments and better teams to get better. We might now like it at the time but we’ll love it when we get better for May. The process worked last May.”