By Donald Heath
Special for the Effingham Herald
GUYTON – South Effingham's second-year softball coach Adam Newland balances bubbly optimism with cautious reality when talking about the upcoming season.
He has a returning nucleus filled with talent and experience. They know the way to Columbus, site of the Elite Eight tournament that crowns a state champion, after a three-game stay in 2022.
"Obviously, last year was very exciting," Newland said. "But last year is in the rear-view mirror for us. Whatever people want to say about us, ultimately there's only one thing that matters internally. Are we doing the things we're supposed to do to get back to Columbus for an even deeper run?"
You have to like their chances and, at the very least, should be in the conversation with the top returning teams in Class 6A. The Mustangs' senior class has compiled a 77-18-1 mark (40-5 in region play) with two region championships during the past three seasons.
SEHS ended 2022 with a 26-7 record and ranked fifth in Class 6A by ScoreAtlanta. Four losses were by one run, including a 3-2 walk-off heartbreaker to Lassiter in its opening game in Columbus. Lassiter was the only team to beat eventual state champion Pope.
MaxPreps ranked Pope the No. 1 softball team in the state and No. 2 in the country.
Five of the starting nine returning Mustangs earned first-team All-Region 2-6A honors last season, including Pitcher of the Year Bailey Kendziorski.
"Most of the kids have been (getting considerable playing time) since their freshman year," Newland said. "They have plenty of varsity experience. Nothing out here should surprise them. We didn't graduate many kids from last year so you would think that would bode well if everyone continues to progress like they should."
Kendziorski gives South a big advantage in a sport where pitching dominates. The right-hander kept batters off-balance with uncanny control. She surrendered only eight walks in 108.2 innings last season and fielded her position like a fifth infielder.
Kendziorski, who plays travel ball with Georgia Impact – one of the top travel ball teams in the state, registered a 12-5 record with a 1.35 earned run average during the high school season. She hurled three no-hitters, including a 4-0 win over Veterans High in Columbus.
"She's a totally unflappable kid," Newland said. "She's been pitching in big games since she was 10 years old so having that person in the circle with that kind of experience, successful experience, gives you an edge."
South backed up Kendziorski's pitching with strong offense and defense. Three infielders – Emma Darrow at second base, Whitney Thompson at third base and Kenzie Ergle at shortstop – also notched first-team, all-region honors along with catcher Jaden Burns.
Darrow led the team with a .454 batting average. Thompson topped the squad with 46 hits and 31 runs batted in while hitting .422. Ergle batted .358 with a team-leading 14 extra-base hits (12 doubles, 2 triples).
Burns, a line-drive hitter, batted .344 in the middle of the lineup.
Izzy Wilkins, a junior lefthander, could see increased playing time as a spot starting pitcher to keep Kendziorski's innings down. Wilkins (.356 batting average in limited play) demonstrated some pop in her bat with a grand slam at state.
Sarah Messex hit .284 at first base.
Newland said the starting outfield positions will be up for grabs. Haley Peluso and Madison Mills saw some playing time last season.
Freshman Justine Nevels could be in the starting mix. Darrow is a candidate to move as Newland tinkers with possible playing combinations.
Freshmen Alyssa Martin and Danni Lynn will provide depth at catcher.
The Mustangs open their season Aug. 5 with games against Glascock County and Harlem in a tournament in Augusta.
"This is a new team and we're focused on moving forward," Newland said. "Sustaining success is the marker of a great program."