NEW CASTLE – The Craig County girls find themselves in a district with two returning state champions this spring, but the Rockets won’t back down from anyone.
James River is the defending Division 2 state champ and Bath County is the Division 1 state champ, and both return their aces. Jessica Simmons returns to pitch for River and Jaylen Ford of Bath County is one of the top pitchers in the state.
“There’s no doubt our district is tough, but we can play with anyone,” said Craig coach Mark McPherson as the girls prepare for Thursday’s home opener. Craig will host Eastern Montgomery on Thursday after visiting Giles for the season opener on Tuesday.
Craig has a talented cast as well with a junior-oriented group. The only returning seniors on the team are pitcher-outfielder Olivia Cole and firstbaseman Jordan Persinger. The good news is, Craig has a returning starter in most positions.
“We were very young last year and the experience should show this season,” said McPherson.
Craig lost just three players from last year’s team, although one was starting pitcher Brittany Ratliff. Danielle Rock was a starting outfielder and Shelby Golembeck was a utility player.
This year the role of team ace falls to junior Ashley Dudding, who started in the outfield last year and saw spot duty on the mound. She’s a good all-around softball player who can hit, run and throw.
“She’s a solid hitter and an outstanding outfielder, and this year she’s going to have to step up and do a lot of pitching for us,” said McPherson.
Cole is the other pitcher. She’s not as fast as Dudding, but she’s accurate and changes speed.
“She goes from slow to slower, but it’s still a change of speed,” joked McPherson.
Craig is set behind the plate with Melia Hutton, an all-district performer as a freshman. She has a strong arm and a good bat at a key spot.
“We’ve always been blessed to have had good catchers,” said McPherson. “Melia’s a heck of an athlete. Look at what she did on the basketball team.”
Senior Jordan Persinger returns at first, where she’s improved every year. She’s a returning starter and a tall target at first.
Elizabeth Surface, another sophomore, returns at second and junior Jordyn Frango is back at short. Jordan is a solid fielder and a terrific hitter. Last year she was first team all-district and just a couple votes shy of being named Player of the Year.
Leah McMahan steps in at third to complete the infield. She’s also a sophomore.
In the outfield Dudding and Cole will alternate in center, with the one not pitching playing that spot.
“I like to have my pitchers play the same position so it doesn’t disrupt the defense if I make a pitching change,” said McPherson.
LeeAnn Mattox will get the nod in left and the other spot is being contested by sophomores Autumn Compton and Miranda Bradley and juniors Emmalee Edwards and Emily Metheney. Craig also welcomes a newcomer, Cristoni Couvrette, a freshman from San Diego. She’ll back up at first and she could also be in the outfield mix.
McPherson will be assisted by Sonny Cole and Carrie Faw returns to coach the junior varsity. The jayvees also should be good, so the softball future is bright in New Castle.
“We just keep on rolling,” said McPherson.
After this week’s schedule the Rockets will play three games next week. They’re at Giles on Monday, home to Auburn on Tuesday, and home to Roanoke Valley Christian on March 22.