CHULA — Tiftarea Academy’s softball team will be the first in the area to get back on the field, hosting Fullington Academy Aug. 4 at noon. A game at home against Cook will follow Aug. 6 at 5 p.m.
Players are itching for competition, said head coach Rob Flick.
“We’ve had so many practices and uncertainty,” he said. “It’ll be nice to get back to some kind of normalcy.”
Softball and cross country are staying on schedule. Football is being pushed back two weeks, meaning Tiftarea’s first game in that sport is slated for Sept. 11.
The Lady Panthers have not had the group together at practice often. Many players are on travel teams, which are all over the place this summer. Others have been at cheerleading practice. Fortunately, none of the absences have been because of illness. Flick said none of his players have had symptoms of coronavirus.
Getting players to follow protocols has not been a problem.
“You say it once,” said Flick. “They take care of it themselves.” He points to the senior leadership on the team. There are only two 12th graders — McKenna McCard and Sara Beth Royal — but they carry the team. “They keep everyone in line.”
Flick is a first-year head coach, but inherits a lineup that advanced to the State Final Four in 2019 and graduated only two players. McCard, his ace pitcher, has committed to play softball for Elon University.
McCard will be joined on the mound by her younger sister, Pyper. Pyper is a freshman, but has already spent one full season on the varsity roster. A third pitcher, Kensie Law, is in eighth grade. Law will probably mostly pitch for the junior varsity.
McKenna McCard is one of two all-region returnees, the other being catcher Elli Bryan.
Ali Strenth will be back at shortstop, as will Laura Ann Jones in centerfield and Royal in right. When she’s not pitching, Pyper McCard will be at first base. Other positions are interchangeable, said Flick. Many Lady Panthers can play multiple positions.
Strenth and Bryan are sophomores, as are Caroline Heard and Mackenzie Matthews. All of them started as freshmen and Bryan was the only freshman to make to make Tiftarea’s all-region team.
“That’s a pretty big grade, athlete-wise” Flick said. Madi Hartsfield, Anslee Jones and Laura Ann Jones make up the junior class.
Tiftarea joins a new region in 2020, but it’s one the team knows well. The Lady Panthers return to Region 3-AAA, where they join Brookwood, Crisp Academy, Deerfield-Windsor, Southland Academy, Southwest Georgia Academy, Terrell Academy, Valwood and Westwood. It’s a much more crowded region than 4-AAA, where they spent the last two years.
The Lady Panthers joined 4-AAA in 2018 to make up for an acute team shortage. While it evened up the amount of teams, it added many more miles to Tiftarea’s buses; one of the trips was to John Milledge Academy in Milledgeville. Flick doesn’t mind the change at all.
Fullington and Cook are the only non-region opponents on the schedule, four games total. Tiftarea jumps into region competition Aug. 20 at Crisp Academy.