TEAMS TO WATCH
1. Baylor: The Lady Red Raiders were 36-7 last season and should again have one of the most potent batting lineups among all teams in the TSSAA. They are also seeking their fourth consecutive Division II-AA state championship and fifth consecutive trip to the final.
2. Meigs County: The Lady Tigers' basketball team recently tied for third at the Class A state tournament, but don't think the softball team can't do something similar. The roster looks similar to the one that played in the Class AA state tournament last season.
3. Sale Creek: Coach Clifford Kirk, who guided 10 Class AAA teams to state titles, is back from the heart problem that led to his collapse on the field during the Region 3-A final in his first season with the Lady Panthers. The District 6 champs have added some key transfers.
PLAYERS TO WATCH
1. Lauren Lewis, Baylor: Power-hitting looks as though it will be plentiful in the Chattanooga area this year and expect Lewis, an outfielder who has committed to Kentucky, to be a key figure. She is rated the No. 25 junior prospect nationally by studentsports.com.
2. Kiara Suttles, Arts & Sciences: Her 13 home runs helped the Lady Patriots finish atop the District 5-A regular-season standings last year for the first time. The senior is also a strong-armed catcher and she has signed with NCAA Division I Southern University.
3. Kelsey Payne, East Hamilton: The Brenau University signee is a left-handed-batting slugger who has started since eighth grade. She missed about three weeks last season with a hamstring problem, but returned late in the year to help lead a run to the state tournament.
After coaching softball at Ooltewah High School for 25 years, the last 20 as head coach, Norma Nelson was fired last May by former principal Mark Bean at the end of last year's 21-16 season. On July 1, Nelson was hired by relative newcomer and neighboring rival East Hamilton.
The 2014 TSSAA softball season begins today, but Nelson will have to wait a day to coach the Lady Hurricanes for the first time. And as fate would have it, it's her former program that will come calling.
East Hamilton is scheduled to host Ooltewah on Tuesday at 4:30 p.m.
"It's a big game, not just because I'm there, but there's something a little more because I'm over at East Hamilton now," said Nelson, who must remember to wear green instead of the customary red she's worn for so long. "It's a big rivalry anyway."
Adding to the complexion of the situation, Nelson is still on faculty at Ooltewah where she's currently teaching personal finance. She said things are cordial with new coach Jon Massey, who has spent seven of his 13 years at Ooltewah involved with the with the baseball program and 11 with the football program.
In addition to it being Nelson's first game with the Lady 'Canes, it also marks East Hamilton's first game in District 5-AAA, which had a lot to do with how the matchup came about.
The Lady 'Canes competed in District 6-AA in their first four years as a varsity program, advancing to the state tournament the last two under coach Cara Stiles, who resigned to take part in a worldwide mission trip. Thanks to an increased enrollment, East Hamilton had to move up when the state organization reclassified this past school year.
During the offseason, 5-AAA held its district meeting to draw opposing teams for the predetermined dates for league games. The Lady Owls and Lady 'Canes ended up paired on the first date, as did neighboring rivals Bradley Central and Cleveland, along with McMinn County and Soddy-Daisy.
"It is kind of luck of the draw," Massey said. "You've got to play them all, home and away. When we play doesn't matter. I don't think it bothers Coach Nelson either. I just hope the sun's out and we have good weather Tuesday."
Neither Ooltewah senior Elizabeth Novelli nor East Hamilton senior Rachel Gamble said much was being talked about in the hallways as of late last week. But both are expecting momentum to pick up as the game nears.
The Lady Owls first must play a game today as they host former District 5-AAA member now 6-AAA member Rhea County at 5:30 p.m. Novelli, a pitcher and first baseman who has signed with Tennessee Wesleyan, said the players' focus is on the opener with the Lady Eagles, but they know what's looming.
"I think we'll have a good turnout," Novelli said of the game at East Hamilton. "I'm anxious to see how things go Tuesday. Now that they're in our district, we need to win games like this if we're planning on having a bright future."
Gamble, a pitcher, outfielder and second baseman who has signed with Motlow State, said East Hamilton is selling T-shirts with the words "Nelly's Crew" emblazoned across the back.
"They're $10 and anyone who wears one will get in the game free," Gamble said. "We're trying to get more students to come to the game. I think it's going to be a great atmosphere for our first home game."
The T-shirts, as expected, are green -- the color of Nelson's new coaching wardrobe.
"I've had some people tell me it looks good on me," she said.
Contact Kelley Smiddie at firstname.lastname@example.org or 423-757-6653. Follow him on Twitter at twitter.com/KelleySmiddie.
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 email@example.com.