PLAYERS TO WATCH
1. Shaliyah Geathers, East Hamilton: This speedy University of Tennessee signee has great range in center field and batted .496 last year with 19 extra-base hits, 40 stolen bases and 56 runs scored.
2. Brook Womack, Central: The Southern Illinois signee batted .466 a year ago with 22 extra-base hits. Her 30 stolen bases were a big increase and helped her score 55 runs. She also drove in 41 runs while primarily batting leadoff.
3. Sidney Hooper, Walker Valley: She had a 14-10 pitching record and 1.52 ERA in 2012, but six of her losses were to the Class AAA state champion and the Division II-AA champion and runner-up. She batted .423 with 20 extra-base hits and has signed with Austin Peay.
TEAMS TO WATCH
1. Baylor: The 2012 Division II-AA state-champion Lady Red Raiders (40-5) had one of the most potent lineups of any softball team in the tradition-rich history of Hamilton County. Gone are Braleigh Angel (Carson-Newman) and Kelsey Clark (Tusculum), but the rest are back. The key is finding a successor for pitcher Kaitie Sims (Carson-Newman).
2. East Hamilton: This is the fourth season the Lady Hurricanes are fielding a varsity team. They'll be trying to build off several firsts from last year, when they won the District 6-AA and region tournaments and advanced to the state tournment. Some freshmen will have to play key roles if East Hamilton is to return to the Spring Fling.
3. Arts & Sciences: Kaity Holloway moves up from assistant to head coach this season. She is succeeding her sister, Kristin, who left to take a job at GPS. In their history the Lady Patriots have one region berth to their credit but have never won a district title -- regular season or tournament. They're on a quest to change that this season.
East Hamilton softball coach Cara Stiles is on a mission this spring. Then, starting in September, she really is going to be on a mission.
Stiles already has told her team she'll be leaving the Lady Hurricanes' program when this high school season ends. In 2012 they earned the first state-tournament berth in the varsity program's third year of existence, so she has her sights set on having her team back in the Spring Fling before she leaves.
But as much as she loves softball -- she's a former player at Soddy-Daisy, Chattanooga State and the University of Memphis who has been involved with the game since she was 5 years old -- her love in another area is greater. She's leaving softball behind, at least temporarily, to be part of an 11-month Christian evangelism trip.
"Two summers ago I spent five weeks in Israel," Stiles said. "While in Israel I just really developed a passion for God and for people. I decided to be obedient and heed the call."
Stiles will be among 30 people who will journey together each month to different locales globally with their message. The stops will include the Phillipines, Cambodia, Ruwanda and the Ukraine.
The venture is part of The World Race, an organization that builds churches and schools, visits hospitals and conducts ministries, among other things, around the world. Stiles' adventure can be followed through her blog at carastiles.theworldrace.org.
"The time is now," Stiles said of her decision. "I don't have a house, or kids, or a husband. I feel like if I don't do it, 20 years from now I'll look back and absolutely regret it."
After a year as an assistant coach at Tyner and one as head coach at Rhea County, Stiles came to East Hamilton last school year. She enters her farewell season with an abundance of talent, led by senior speedster Shaliyah Geathers and junior slugger Kelsey Payne.
Junior first baseman Amber Phillips is another returning starter from last year's team, which won the District 6 and Region 3 tournaments in Class AA. Sophomore catcher Emma Brooks, who missed much of last season after having surgery on her thumb, also returns.
Returning left-handed pitcher Maria Walshe, a senior, has been bothered by shoulder problems. Junior right-hander Rachel Gamble is expected to have more starts than before, and freshman right-hander Lexi Hargrove could contribute in the pitching circle, too. A few freshmen could push for starting positions.
"I can look at batting practice all day," Stiles said, "but until I see how we do in a game it's hard to judge our hitting. Defensively we'll be much more solid than we were last year."
Stiles turned in her resignation a couple of weeks ago, so the quest to find her successor can begin now. However, East Hamilton athletic director and assistant principal Brad Jackson said things are currently "in limbo."
The school is waiting to hear from the Hamilton County Department of Education's central office regarding enrollment figures, and word may not come until the end of this school year. That will determine if it can hire another faculty member after Stiles leaves.
According to Section 9 in the TSSAA handbook, softball is one of the sports in which the state organization requires the head coach to be on faculty or be a retired faculty member. The Lady Hurricanes' next coach, as they move to the Class AAA level, will be their fourth in five years.
"We want some stability," Jackson said. "We thought with hiring Cara we were getting that. It's a great school, but you can't argue with a higher calling."
Although the Lady 'Canes were 0-2 in their first state-tournament trip, Stiles believes the experience was immeasurable for her returning players and a return trip could prove to be more fruitful. So if at the end of May, Stiles is able to say "mission accomplished" in celebration of a state championship, would she consider aborting her other mission?
"No," she said. "It would just be a sweet exit."
Former WRCB-TV sports anchor Randy Smith has been hired as head softball coach at Brainerd.
Smith, who teaches a broadcasting media class at the school, has experience coaching his daughter, Christy, in summer ball, but her last season in 18-under was in the 1990s.
"I enjoy coaching," said Smith, who will take a squad of 16 into Tuesday's opener against fellow District 6-AA opponent East Ridge. "I look forward to just getting back in it. We have some really, really good athletes, just not a lot of softball players. We can work on that. My number one goal is to not forfeit a game."
District 6-A's Richard Hardy is fielding a varsity program for the first time. Girls' basketball coach Kelby Ferrell will be the head softball coach.
Former Soddy-Daisy coach Clifford Kirk "unretired" and now heads Sale Creek's program. Wes Skiles will debut as Soddy-Daisy's coach Tuesday at home against District 5-AAA foe Ooltewah.
Ricky and Janice Ritchie coached Bledsoe County in 2011 and return to the Lady Warriors' dugout this season. Other new coaches at area schools include Katie Albright at Notre Dame, Jason Evans at Grundy County, Lauren Flores at Chattanooga Christian, Kaity Holloway at Arts & Sciences and Shaina Manning at Signal Mountain.
Kelley Smiddie is a sports writer who has worked at the Times Free Press for 12 years. He covers high school sports and softball. Kelley’s hometown is Chattanooga, and he graduated from Brainerd High School and graduated Chattanooga State and UTC. Contact Kelley at 423-757-6653 or firstname.lastname@example.org.