PERKINSTON — New Mississippi Gulf Coast softball coach Eric Neel has been on the job at Perk since July, but he thinks he's in a great spot on and off the field. His 2020 squad is scheduled to get on the field this weekend when the Bulldogs host doubleheaders against Dyersburg State.
"I think we've got a real legit chance to be one of the last few teams standing," he said. "The pitching depth is getting better, and the offense is surprising. Any time you've got a No. 1 pitcher like we do, we feel like if she's out there, there may be teams as good as us, but we don't feel like there's anybody better."
The season is scheduled to start at 1 p.m. Saturday at Ross-Smith Field, with Sunday's first pitch at 10 a.m.
The Bulldogs finished 31-14 last season but failed to advance out of the state tournament. They are ranked No. 13 in the country and return one of the state's most dominant pitchers, Kristen Cade (So, Harrison Central/Saucier). She earned All-NJCAA Region 23 honors and was MACJC Pitcher of the Week three times.
Cade, who has signed to play at the University of Louisiana, a top-10 team last season, threw a no-hitter, a one-hitter and three two-hitters. Believe it or not, she might be better this year.
"Last year, she gave us quite a few home runs because she stayed in the top of the zone a lot," Neel said. "Now that we can get down in the zone, and now we can slow it down some, she's starting to be able to pinpoint a lot of her pitches instead of just reaching back and trying to blow it by everybody. She's become a pitcher. "
For the time being, A'Mya Stevens (Fr, Northeast Jones/Laurel) fits into the No. 2 role, with Andrea Morgan (Fr, Jackson Prep/Jackson) what he calls "2b." He thinks Katie Mitchell (Fr, Kosciusko/McCool) will be a good middle reliever, with Hannah Herrington (Fr, Enterprise/Enterprise) a potential dream closer because "she can sling it."
She'll split time with Briana Shores (So, Richland/Richland), who had a great glove at third base last year and has improved the other half of her game.
"She's going to hit in the middle of the lineup," Neel said. "Her pitch selection has gotten better, and her confidence has gotten better. I think she's going to have a big year offensively."
Up the middle, Rakeya Travis (Fr, Poplarville/Poplarville) has a chance to be a special player, and Addison Renfroe (So, Lee County/Leesburg, Ga.) transferred from Augusta University with great defensive skills. Jenn Perkins (So, Barbe/Lake Charles, La.), a transfer from LSU Eunice, will also see time at second.
Neel said he's got three first basemen, counting newcomers Stevens and Herrington, who join Marsha' Hunt (So, Philadelphia/Philadelphia) who is back after batting .341 as a freshman.
Alexis Laughlin (Fr, East Central/Hurley) will lead off and start in center field. In right field, Kenzie Nichols (So, Germantown/Madison) is back after batting .290 as a freshman. The other corner will be manned by Sarah Brannan (Fr, Enterprise/Enterprise) and Caroline Moore (Fr, Maryville/Maryville, Tenn.). Kathryn Reeves (So, Morton/Morton) will provide depth in the outfield.
"I think we're going to be really good offensively when it's said and done," Neel said. "We run the bases well. We're starting to understand how to hit in certain counts and with people in certain places. The confidence is growing in that. Our pitching is going to be good, but offensively we're going to be really good."
Depth in the circle will be the biggest question as the freshmen adjust to college play, and they'll have to do it in one of the toughest leagues in the country. Three other MACJC teams are ranked in the top 20: Jones (No. 4), Itawamba (No. 7) and East Central (No. 20). Add in a good Northwest team, and it will be hard to make it to the Region 23 Tournament.
The regional will be hosted by LSU Eunice, which has won five of the last seven national championships. Jones won in 2018, which points out the difficulty of just getting to Clinton, Miss., for the national championship.
Neel has been stressing the number 144 to his team this year. That's how many miles it is from Perkinston to Clinton. He feels his team has a chance, thanks in large part to his ability to focus on what's happening on the field.
"It's been great," he said. "It's a whole lot easier when you're not out begging for resources all the time. There are ways to get things done the way you want to get them done. The kids have worked extremely hard. I can't complain about how hard they've worked and how much they've improved because they wanted to."
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