A year ago, the Columbia Academy Lady Cougars finished the season on a tear as they entered the 16-team Class 3A State Tournament as a bottom-four seed and finished as the No. 4 team in the state. But as much as things remain the same with seven starters and the coaching staff returning, a lot is also changing with CA moving up to Class 5A and switching up its entire infield.
Third-year head coach Kyle Wilks said the Lady Cougars got a lot of good experience during the impressive postseason run, and he’s expecting them to take another step forward.
“Hopefully we can put it all together and have another good season,” he said.
That may be a little tougher with the move to 5A as the Lady Cougars will be joined by Brookhaven Academy, Oak Forest Academy, Silliman Institute and Bowling Green in District 4.
“It’s going to be tough. Silliman and Brookhaven are really good teams. Bowling Green (and) Oak Forest, year in and year out are really good programs in softball,” Wilks said. “Even though I feel like I’ll have the best team that I’ve had since I’ve been here, we’re going to have to be scratching and clawing to get into South State just because of the district that we play in. But I think we’ll do well.”
CA relied heavily on Macey Branch (3.93 ERA in 98 1/3 innings) in the circle last season as just a sixth grader, and while she’s back, Wilks said he’s excited about the pitching depth the Lady Cougars now have. Alana Bullock, a senior, is back after sporting a 3.11 ERA across 33 2/3 innings last season, and newcomer Abbey Peavey, a junior, will be in the mix as well after transferring in.
“(Peavey) is going to spend a lot of time in the circle this year. She’s a good pitcher,” Wilks said. “Those three are going to throw a lot, and we still have two or three other girls that are going to contribute a lot, too. For the first time in a long time, we actually have multiple girls we can run out there and have confidence in.”
Those pitchers will be throwing to a new catcher, Briley Sullivan, this season following Megan Rowley’s graduation. Sullivan was a starter for the Lady Cougars last year and will be moving back behind the dish, where she has played a lot in junior varsity action. Wilks said Sullivan has been great in CA’s early scrimmages.
The shuffling of the infield will now see Abi Williams, who played middle infield the past two years, slide over to third base. Maggie Wilks, who was the starting shortstop, is moving to second base. Presley Dease, who was the third baseman, is shifting to shortstop, and Allie Watts, who earned The Columbian-Progress’ Most Improved Player award in 2020, will be the lone infield staying put at first base.
In the outfield, Bullock will be replacing Maddie Claire Sauls (graduation) in center field, and Molly Sauls will play right field. The left field job remains up for grabs, and Wilks said when Peavey isn’t pitching, she will likely fill that hole.
Defense was one of Columbia Academy’s biggest weaknesses last season, particularly early in the season, but Wilks said he believes the shuffling will pay off for the Lady Cougars.
“Defensively, I think this is going to be the best infield we’ve had in a while. I’m asking a couple girls to play some different positions than what they’ve had, but they’ve done really well with it,” he said. “I think we’ll do really well. You have to be able to make routine plays, and you have to be able to limit walks on the mound. As long as you do those things and swing the bat a little bit, you’re going to be able to be in any ball game that you play.”
The Lady Cougars have been practicing since mid-March and have had a lot more time working together than they did prior to last season because of the pandemic. Not only has the extra time helped the defense, Wilks said CA is putting the ball in play more after striking out too often the past two years.
“We have a couple kids that swing the bat really well. Our lineup, top to bottom, is going to have girls that can swing it,” he said. “I think we have the potential to hit more home runs than we did before and from multiple girls. Offensively, I feel like we’re going to swing the bats really well.”
CA has played three scrimmages leading up to the season and been competitive in all three. In a doubleheader Friday, the Lady Cougars lost 2-0 to Copiah Academy and beat Amite School Center 4-3. Peavey threw four innings against Copiah, allowing two runs on two hits and two walks while fanning three. Watts had the lone hits for CA, ripping a single and a double. Bullock tossed three spotless innings against ASC, while Sullivan led the offense with a pair of doubles and 3 RBI.
Monday they took on rival Simpson Academy and fell 4-3 in just a two-inning exhibition. Bullock wasn’t quite as effective against Simpson, surrendering four runs while collecting just four outs. Taylor Berard paced the offense with a two-run single, and Molly Sauls plated a run with a single.
The Lady Cougars include Williams, Bullock, Dease, Peavey, Sullivan, Watts, Branch, Berard, Maggie Wilks, Molly Sauls, Lydia Pace, Gracie Andrews, Tessa Brown, Camryn Robbins, Harley Herring, Maggie Smith, Presley Branch, Paisley Courtney, Macie Wilks, Carlee Pounds, Avery Bryan, Kalli Populis, Kate Fortenberry, Maycee McKenzie, Ava Baughman, Ema Mitchell, Emmi Burrell, Ainsley Armstrong and Olivia Lindley.