TIFTON — The calendar reads July, but believe it or not, competitive local high athletics will be starting in a week.
Tift County’s softball team will venture to Sylvester next Thursday for a 5 p.m. softball scrimmage against Worth County. Four days after that, the Lady Devils will play their home opener against Coffee.
The contest will mark the start of the 2019 season. It will also mark Taylor Barber’s start as Tift’s head softball coach. He succeeds Kyle Kirk, who had the reins of softball and baseball for the past three seasons. Kirk will remain with baseball and Barber will assist him during the spring.
Barber was hired away from Colquitt County over the summer. The decision seems to be working out so far.
“I like it,” said Barber. “I really do.”
He inherits a Tift program that has started to re-find its footing. Kirk’s teams were young and that youth has now grown up. Barber lists five seniors on this team, the largest class of such in four years.
“They have a lot of experience,” he said. Those in the 12th grade are Alayna Davis, Emily Henderson, Alaina Stephens, Abi Sumner and Meagan Taylor. Sumner and Taylor primarily pitch. Stephens is an infielder and Davis and Henderson are outfielders.
Sumner and Taylor will be getting help in the circle from sophomores Paige Hill and Madison Smith.
Sumner has been Tift’s main arm for the last few seasons. Barber said she has had to take it slow this summer because of an arm injury, but is back pitching. “She’s good,” said Barber. “She’s special. She’s going to go out there and fight for you.”
He predicts Sumner’s senior season will be a special one. “I think she’ll use being hurt as a positive thing.”
Morgen Ray returns behind the plate. She is a junior who already has two years of varsity experience. Barber described her as “an awesome person to have around.”
Josie Bullington plays first. Sumner has exclusively been a pitcher the past three seasons, but Barber has had her work out there, too. Bullington has been playing well over the summer, he said.
Stephens is to play second, Hill will be at shortstop. Niambi Battle is the favorite to play third base. Battle might be the team’s most improved player.
There are three outfield slots and Barber said he has “four players fighting really, really hard” for them: Davis, Smith, Henderson and Meg Branch. Branch can play infield as well. As a whole, Barber said the outfielder corps has been making strides and haven’t misplayed any balls all summer.
Davis might be Tift County’s leadoff hitter once the season starts. Henderson and Smith also have wheels.
Following the Coffee game, Tift will have a weekend series in the northern half of the state. They will play Morgan County and Newton in Madison Aug. 9 before heading to Newton County-based Eastside High Aug. 10. Their second home game will be Aug. 14 against Worth, then they will head to Cordele for the Watermelon Invitational.
Region starts Aug. 22 with a doubleheader at Lowndes. Tift will play at Camden County before getting their first region home games Sept. 5 against Colquitt County.
While the Lady Devils are four years removed from their last winning season, Barber is confident in what he has.
“The community has been great. The girls are sponges. I couldn’t ask for anything more.”