PLAYERS TO WATCH
1. Emily Boyd, Northwest Whitfield. The senior pitcher is committed to Ole Miss after winning 29 games with a 0.67 ERA and 230 strikeouts in 2011 and earning her third consecutive all-state honor.
2. Jesslyn Stockard, Heritage. The first baseman is headed to UTC after powering the Generals to a region championship and deep state tournament run with nine homers and 46 RBIs last year.
3. Ericka Bynum, Ringgold. The senior infielder will be asked to carry a bigger role for the young Lady Tigers after batting .456 with six homers and 39 RBIs last season.
TEAMS TO WATCH
1. Northwest Whitfield. The Lady Bruins return everyone from last season's Class AAAA state-tournament team, including star pitcher Emily Boyd, catcher Bayli Cruse and third baseman Mykeah Johnson.
2. Heritage. The Generals won 31 games and a region title a year ago and return UTC-bound all-stars Jesslyn Stockard and Savannah Goldsmith in addition to pitcher Allison Vaughn and Kristin West.
3. Lakeview-Fort Oglethorpe. New coach Lisa Rogers will have her Lady Warriors in contention in the new Region 5-AAA behind the hot-hitting duo of Maryanne Morgan and Courtney Crawford and pitcher Megan Smith.
TUNNEL HILL, Ga. — Emily Boyd doesn't sugarcoat the answer, preferring to attack the question the same way the Northwest Whitfield High School senior softball pitcher goes after a batter.
"Our goal is to win state, get that ring," Boyd said when asked about the senior-laden team's expectations this season. "We have all the capabilities in the world to get it done. Now we just have to do it."
The Lady Bruins return all nine regulars from last year's state-tournament team, and in Georgia's new six-classification system they will go from playing in the state's second-largest class to its third biggest. In doing so Northwest returns to a localized region after playing mostly Metro Atlanta schools the past two years.
Joining all-star pitcher Boyd, who already has committed to Ole Miss, are .400-plus hitters Bayli Cruse, Mykeah Johnson, Colbie Thomas, Macy Weeks and Ashley Conner.
"It's going to be great not to have to travel as much this year and play bigger schools," Boyd said. "Playing local teams is going to add excitement, though the teams in our region (7-AAAA) are good."
It all adds up to one of the most anticipated seasons in the strong history of the program. There is, however, a noticeable change in the program. Shane Ramsey, the architect of the recent Northwest success, resigned this past winter and is being replaced by former assistant coach Jason Brooker.
It's a good thing Brooker is familiar with the players since Monday was the first time the team had a full practice together and the Lady Bruins open play today. With the players just finishing travel-ball play, the new coach isn't worried about conditioning.
"They're all in good softball shape," said Booker, who despite his optimism wasn't ready to think ahead to October and the state tournament. "We're going to try and downplay all that early, and I know it's cliche, but we have to worry about the next game. If we do that, we'll be OK."
Lindsey Young is a sports writer at the Chattanooga Times Free Press who started work at the Chattanooga News-Free Press 24 years ago. He covers the Northwest Georgia prep beat and NASCAR. Lindsey’s hometown is Ringgold, Ga., and he graduated from Lakeview-Fort Oglethorpe High School. He received an associate’s degree from Dalton Junior College (now Dalton State) and a bachelor’s degree in communications from UTC. He has won several writing awards, including two Tennessee Sports ...