PERKINSTON — Mississippi Gulf Coast will start 2018 with 16 freshmen on its softball roster. That's meant some growing pains for coach Kenneth Long's team, but he's seen real progress.
"We had our worst fall in terms of wins and losses since I've been here, but this team made a big turnaround," said Long, who is in his 17th season at Gulf Coast. We're excited every time we go out there. We think we've got a chance to prove a lot of people wrong."
Long passed the 500-win mark last season, and he and assistant Christie Meeks have spent the past few months coaching the No. 14 Lady Bulldogs up. They'll see their first action Friday when they travel to Poplarville to play Baton Rouge and No. 1 LSU-Eunice.
Gulf Coast's first two home dates will be played at West Harrison High School while the finishing touches are put on the new stadium at Ross-Smith Field. It is expected to be ready for the March 3 MACJC home opener against Holmes.
The area where they are most experienced will be in the infield. Shortstop Brittney Triplett (So, Brandon/Brandon) returns after leading the team with a .390 batting average. She had a stretch of six straight multi-hit games last year.
Kristen Sexton (So, Gulfport/West Harrison) will anchor first base again, where she proved adept with the glove and that bat. She batted .375 and drove in 28 runs.
"It helps us because they have a whole year behind them where they went through this tough conference schedule," Long said. "They understand better than anybody else. Both of them should be able to show leadership in the tough games."
Lauren Hall (Fr, Nettleton/Nettleton) will start the season at second base, with Betty Mingo (Fr, Choctaw Central/Philadelphia) and Hannah Hembree (Fr, Pascagoula/Pascagoula) splitting time at third. When Kaylynn Garrett (Fr, Oxford/Oxford, Ala.) returns from injury, she's expected to fit in up the middle and provide a big punch.
Megan Sexton (Fr, West Harrison/Gulfport), Kristin's sister, is expected to roam center field, with "pleasant surprise" Katie Beth Williams (Fr, Smithville/Smithville) starting in right field. Left field is expected to see split playing time between Lanae Davis (So, East Central/Hurley) and Madison Wall (Fr, East Central/Hurley).
Long said freshman Bailey Massey (Fr, Bruce/Bruce) may see action at all three positions and has the potential to be a strong player.
The outfield will also get a boost of experience added when Abbey Salvo (So, Brandon/Brandon) returns. She played mostly second base last year, but she will see time in both the infield and outfield this year. She batted .293 with 23 RBI last year.
Jada White (Fr, Philadelphia/Philadelphia) is expected to catch an all-freshman pitching staff.
"We feel like is very talented," Long said. "She's a well-rounded player. She came in and worked hard at fundamentals. She's a great hitter and is really going to do a good job for us."
The Lady Bulldogs' No. 1 starter right now is Savannah Bryant (Fr, Long Beach/Long Beach).
"She came in in the fall and has been a good leader," Long said. "She's worked hard every day and never takes a day off. She has a work ethic, and if you're willing to listen to Coach Christie, you're going to be good. That's the way she is."
Avery Sanders (Fr, E.D. White/Thibodaux, La.) has a lot of tools at her disposal, and Mingo has pushed her way into playing time at third and in the circle. Mid-year transfer Sydney Davis (Fr, Tri-County Academy/Clinton) figures to be in the mix
"We have a lot of freshmen pitchers who came in in August," Long said. "We were stressing out a little bit, but Coach Christie has done a phenomenal job. We were looking at some video the other day comparing September to now, and this pitching staff is so much better."
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