MILLEDGEVILLE, Ga. — Talent comes and goes after each season, but year after year John Milledge Academy softball continues to assert itself as one of the top GISA programs in Class AAA.
Lady Trojan players and supporters are hoping that steady trend continues with the 2019 campaign as JMA gets ready to hit the field for the real thing Saturday, Aug. 10.
Last season saw coach Andy Bonifay’s team finish as Region 4-AAA runner-up behind eventual state champion Westfield, but that did not stop the Lady Trojans from making a deep postseason run. They, for the fourth straight year, advanced to the state semifinals where Bulloch Academy ended their season.
Entering 2019, Bonifay, starting his third year with the program and second as head coach, finds himself in a position that ought not to be too foreign. He returns a solid nucleus of contributors from last year while also needing multiple producers to step up and fill roles. The Lady Trojans graduated four starting positions from the 2018 roster — an outfielder, third baseman, catcher, and pitcher/first baseman. The loss of the part-time arm will likely affect John Milledge most as Bonifay looks to rely heavily on rising junior hurler Brayden Latimer.
“It was nice having the 1-2 with Brayden going right at batters and Ansley (Glover) mixing speeds,” the head coach said. “There was just such a great change of pace and tempo between those two. This year we’ll lean heavy on Brayden. We’ve got an eighth-grader who will eventually slide into the mix and hopefully give her some relief, but Brayden’s going to get the ball every day to start off. Hopefully once our younger pitcher transitions she can carry some of that load as well.”
Latimer took the circle in the team’s region games a year ago and produced in a big way, striking out 101 batters in 85 innings while sporting a 2.20 earned run average. She also did considerable damage with her bat as she hit .304 and finished with 18 RBIs. Those numbers landed the lefty All-Region and All-County status as a sophomore, and she’ll look to make a big impact once again in 2019.
Three other core players are back for Bonifay in seniors Madison Brown and Sutton Eady as well as junior Olivia Rhodes. Brown carried the team’s second-highest batting average (.419) in 2018 and reached base in over half of her at-bats. Eady provided some power with her .362 average and three home runs while playing a solid second base, and the shortstop Rhodes figures to be the team’s best threat on the base paths once again after stealing 16 bases and scoring 31 runs last year.
“Them picking up right where they left off is going to be crucial,” Bonifay said of his returners.
While the four players mentioned are expected to be known commodities in both the tops and bottoms of innings, JMA softball will need its less-experienced players to step up if the team is to continue its Final Four streak and challenge Westfield for region and state championships. Coach Bonifay is impressing upon his younger players the fact that plate production isn’t the only deciding factor when it comes to playing time. He’s looking for those underclassmen to be consistent with their gloves as well, and those that are will receive some good marks in the competition for at-bats.
The work toward the start of this upcoming season began with voluntary workouts in June, a period two team veterans say went very well for the club.
“We had voluntary practice for the first month, and mostly everyone showed up every day ready to work,” Brown said.
“I’m really excited because I’ve been playing with these girls for forever,” Eady added speaking on the prospects for this season. “We have a lot of young girls, but they’re all really capable. I have a lot of confidence that they’ll be able to step up to the plate.”
In July the Lady Trojans mixed in some preseason scrimmage work. Asked what he saw from his team in those dress rehearsals, Bonifay replied, “I thought we competed well at the plate. I thought that would be a struggle early, but they really put together some good at-bats. Defensively was probably where we saw the most failure, which for some of them it was their first time playing at new positions and seeing live balls off the bat.”
All of that has led up to this point where the team is now a week away from the start of the 2019 regular season. The Lady Trojans open up with a home doubleheader Saturday, Aug. 10 against Fellowship Christian. Game 1 is set to begin at noon with the second to follow. JMA will wait until Sept. 10 before getting into Region 4-AAA action, as that’s when they are set to take the field against defending state champ Westfield.