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Despite youth, Harlem softball team looking to build off last season

Posted: August 9, 2017 - 1:23am
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Harlem coach Mike Leverett talks to his team at a recent practice. Despite having a young Lady Bulldogs team this season, Leverett still expects his squad to play at a high level.
Harlem coach Mike Leverett talks to his team at a recent practice. Despite having a young Lady Bulldogs team this season, Leverett still expects his squad to play at a high level.

Harlem coach Mike Leverett said there's no pressure for his softball team coming into this season.

After the Lady Bulldogs won their first state championship last season, the team also graduated six senior players - all of them impact players. So while the Harlem coach expects this year's team to play at a high level, he also acknowledges that his roster is full of youth and inexperience.

"We want to make sure we put a competitive team on the field, and I know we will," Leverett said. "We're going to be young at skill positions. But these girls have worked their butts off this summer. I'm so ready for the season to start, because I think we're going to be OK."

Harlem begins its season at 8:30 p.m. Friday against Elbert County in the Chick-fil-A tournament at Patriots Park. Then, the Lady Bulldogs will play six days in a row next week, starting with their game at 5:30 p.m. Monday at Evans. Harlem, which is playing Greenbrier twice this season, plays host to the Lady Wolfpack at 6 p.m. Friday before playing the following day at Thomson.

"We did win state last year, but that was last year. This is another year," said Leverett, whose team is facing a tough non-region schedule. "We've got some girls playing who have never been to Columbus. They're setting their eyes on that, because the girls went last year.

"Everybody is telling them that we're rebuilding this year. I refuse to let them believe that."

The 2016 campaign was a breakthrough season for a team that finished as state runner-up four years ago and also advanced to the Elite Eight in 2015. Last year, Harlem went 35-4, won the Region 4-AA championship and then defeated Vidalia, 3-1, in the state title contest.

"That 2013 team, I thought we had a team to win state," Leverett said. "In 2016, I knew we had a great pitcher on the mound. I just didn't know good we really were until we played some big teams."

Harlem graduated plenty of talent off last season's team, including region player of the year Madison Summers, who led the Lady Bulldogs with a .456 batting average. Harlem also lost catcher Lexi Mays and first baseman Cassie Blizzard, who tied for the team lead with four home runs. The team also lost Julianna Fuller (.441 average, 27 RBI) and Josie Armstrong, who hit the key two-run double in the state championship game. Also, pitcher Lillie Streets (10-0, 1.83 ERA) has graduated.

Despite all the losses, Harlem returns one of the state's top pitchers in junior Skyler Wiggins, who went 23-3 with a 1.21 ERA, along with 172 strikeouts in 144.1 innings. She also posted a .432 batting average with seven doubles and 25 RBI.

"Skyler gives us a chance to win," Leverett said about his pitcher, who is currently drawing interest from colleges including Auburn and Georgia Southern. "Whenever she's on the field, we've got a chance to beat anybody if we play good defense."

Other returning starters include senior Anasja Sanders in left field. She hit .407 in 54 at-bats last season. Also, sophomore third baseman Aliyah Luke is back after hitting .562 with 10 RBI in 16 at-bats in 2016. Senior Jaylyn Norman will return as the designated hitter (.384, 29 RBI). Junior Dixie Hill is expected to pitch, along with Wiggins.

In the field, Leverett said one freshman, three sophomores, four juniors and one senior will start. Despite the game inexperience, Leverett said he believes his team has a chance to return to the Class AA Elite Eight in Columbus, Ga. If the Lady Bulldogs can do that, anything can happen.

"We're going to be young, but we're going to be scrappy," Leverett said. "This team is just scrappy enough that if we get in there, we're going to be fine."

 

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