Only one team finished ahead of John Milledge Academy for the 2019 GISA AAA softball state championship, and that’s something the Lady Trojans are looking to remedy in 2020.
John Milledge lost three key seniors from last year’s state runner-up finish, but returning talent and a couple of transfers has new head coach Sydney Lack excited for the upcoming campaign.
Lack, a 2017 graduate of Gatewood School in Eatonton, coached JMA’s middle school softball team last year and was handed the reins to the varsity program in ’20. She’s had her girls on the practice field since just after the July Fourth holiday, getting ready for what they all hope is a continuation of recent seasons’ success. Lady Trojan softball has made it at least as far as the state semifinals five years running now, including last year’s trip to the title round against Westfield.
Settling in as new head coach of the JMA program has been very different for Lack, thanks to the COVID-19 pandemic, as conditions are far from normal.
“It really has been tough,” Lack said. “It’s hard to build those relationships with a new team when there’s so many stipulations and guidelines. I think we really have done the best we could do right now.”
Luckily for Lack, she also assists with basketball, so she’s gotten to know a number of her players on the basketball court before leading them onto the softball field.
The ongoing pandemic resulted in the GISA to make a couple of small changes to the upcoming softball season. The schedule was not pushed back like football was, but fans might notice a few differences while watching games. To cut down on team-to-team contact, pitchers are to bring their own ball to the circle each inning. If a foul ball is hit out of play, the fielding team will replace it. Lack also said teams are expected to bring their own water coolers with them to away games. The home team usually supplies balls for a game and a cooler for the visitors.
John Milledge softball has named two captains for this season, and followers of the program will find the two names as no surprise. Returning All-State honorees Brayden Latimer and Olivia Rhodes have been handed the co-captain mantle. Rhodes was the team’s top threat on the basepaths in ’19 as she went a perfect 18-for-18 in stolen bases while hitting for a .347 average. She will once again hold down the shortstop position and try to help lead the team back to state. Both she and Latimer were major reasons the Lady Trojans went so deep into the postseason a year ago. Latimer’s left arm put in a ton of work from the pitcher’s circle as she struck out 200 batters across 154 1/3 innings with just a 2.36 earned run average.
“I really think she’s improved her speed,” Lack said of her star pitcher. “She knows it’s her senior season, so she’s going to do everything she can to carry us as far as we can go.”
The Westfield Lady Hornets out of Perry swept last year’s finals series against JMA 2-0, making it their third straight championship win. Latimer’s pitching arm was understandably out of gas upon reaching the last round after having thrown all through the postseason. The new Lady Trojan head hopes to remove some of that burden this year with another deep run in the program’s sights as a couple of other girls will be expected to step in from time to time.
“It takes a lot of weight off her shoulders knowing she’s not going to have to pitch all through the state playoffs,” Lack said of Latimer. “I think it’s helped her a lot knowing she can slide over to first base when I don’t need her to pitch.”
Joining Latimer and Rhodes as upperclassmen returning from last year are catcher Cadence Bandows and Taylor Prestridge. Bandows hit for a .301 average as a junior and smacked two homers, including a grand slam in the state playoffs.
The offensive production lost with last year’s graduating class will be difficult to replace, but Lack hopes a couple of out-of-town transfers will help at the plate, in the field and inside the pitcher’s circle.
With all that said, John Milledge’s new coach would not be surprised if the two teams vying for the AAA title are the same again come late October.
“They (Westfield) will be the one to beat again this year,” Lack said. “I think they’ve got seven seniors, but I do feel like this year is going to be a toss-up between the two of us. I don’t think anybody feels like they’ve got us or we’ve got them. It could go either way… We look really good right now. If we do what we’re supposed to do there’s no doubt in my mind that we’ll be back to where we were last year. I hope a lot of people will come see us play this year because I know we’re going to be fun to watch.”
The Lady Trojans begin the 2020 season Wednesday at home against 2019 AA champion Windsor Academy with first pitch set for 4:30 p.m. The regular season championship rematch against Westfield is scheduled for Aug. 20 in Perry. The Lady Hornets will return the favor and travel to JMA Sept. 15.