Top photo: Clay City junior Chelsee Gerber fires to a teammate during an indoor practice last week.
Bottom photo: Clay City's Kylee Knox works on throwing drills during practice for the upcoming softball season.
A week ago, Clay City softball Coach Roger Rhodes hadn't named a starting pitcher for the Lady Eels' April 6 opener at North Knox. Or the game after that. Or the next one.
But Clay City's pitching picture-- hazy at best, until recently-- is beginning to come into focus. At the end of a four-year period during which most of the Eels' pitching duties were shouldered by two players (both graduated in '05), Clay City's hopes now rest on a handful of veterans with fleeting experience on the mound and one promising but untried freshman.
Rhodes has named sophomore Angie Camp and seniors Kristin Tyler and Lindsey Moss as probable hurlers for the '06 squad. All three have pitched in the past, though their time on the mound has been limited by other assignments-- all three are sometime infielders, and Camp also serves as a part-time catcher. Clay City's best long-term prospect, according to Rhodes: Tasha Collendaugh, whose pre-high school experience makes her a likely candidate for opening day starter.
If Rhodes still seems a little uneasy about his pitching staff, it's because he understands the impact a solid hurler can have on a game-- and a season.
"Pitching is a key to this game. You've got to have good pitching," he said.
Clay City softball is familiar territory for Rhodes-- he watched the team closely last year, when his daughter Lonnie starred for the Lady Eels at the plate and on the mound. In his first year at the helm, Rhodes' biggest challenge may be filling the hole left by his daughter's departure.
"(Lonnie) and (senior pitcher) Cameron (Gerber) were the two leaders of the team last year," he said. "They both had good bats and they basically did all the pitching."
Fortunately for Rhodes, expectations for the '06 squad aren't stifling. The first-year head coach is taking over a program that finished 9-10 last year. With Gerber and Rhodes gone, the Lady Eels enter the season as an unknown quantity in the Tri-River and Southwestern Indiana Athletic Conferences.
Though the departure of Gerber and Rhodes left holes in the Eels' line-up and pitching rotation, the return of several impact players from the '05 roster should soften the blow The team's three seniors-- Kylee Knox, Lindsey Moss and Kristin Tyler-- bring experience to a Lady Eels roster packed with underclassmen. Juniors Chelsee Gerber and Kendra Rowe, rated by Rhodes as the Lady Eels' foremost offensive threats, add pop to the Clay City line-up.
"They're both pretty good little hitters," Rhodes said.
But Rhodes sees the greatest potential in his sophomore class. With just seven juniors or seniors on a 20-player roster, Clay City's success depends upon key contributions from last year's freshmen-- though the coach admitted most of his second-year players have yet to define their roles on the '06 team.
"A lot of the sophomores are just fighting for positions. They've played a lot of summer ball, and they're very competitive," he said.
Rhodes and the Eels won't have to wait long to see how their young team stacks up against one of the area's top programs. Clay City will face perennial powerhouse Shakamak April 10, the second game on their regular schedule.