Whitnie Enfield, junior, outfield

Junior Carmen Floyd recently approached Houston softball coach Willy Walker with a confession.

“She told me at a practice last week, ‘You know, these younger girls are growing on me,'” Walker said.

It’s a good thing. Floyd is definitely outnumbered.

The Lady Tigers softball program begins a new era in 2010. Gone are six seniors who led the team to a winning season in the first-ever fall season. They are replaced by a talented freshman class — six who will immediately step into the starting lineup.

Suddenly Floyd, who was the youngest starter last season as a sophomore, is the veteran of the team. There are no seniors on the roster.

Walker, who led Houston to an 8-7 mark in his first season last year, had coached the freshman class in summer leagues. He said he has been anticipating their arrival and has high hopes for them.

“This team is very athletic,” Walker said. “But they are freshmen. There will be ups and downs.”

The cornerstone of the team is Floyd, who returns after earning all-district honors as a pitcher. She took over the role of staff ace midway through last season.

At the plate, Floyd was one of the team’s top power hitters despite battling a lingering ankle injury. She batted .349 and hit the team’s only home run to clear the fences.

Floyd will had an adjustment to make on the mound after MSHSAA moved the pitching rubber three feet back during the offseason. But Walker said he wasn’t concerned.

“As fast as she throws, three feet is not going to make that big of a difference,” Walker said. “She’s throwing harder now than she did last year.”

Floyd will be joined on the infield by nearly all freshmen. Belle Knarr will catch and Maddie Vandiver (second base), Taylor Franklin (shortstop) and Kaylea Preheim (third) make up three-quarters of the infield. Junior first baseman Kayla Kelley is the lone non-freshman.

In the outfield, another freshman — Courtney Mutzebaugh — will start in center field. She will be flanked by some combination of junior Bayle Harrah, sophomore Sadie Ashworth and freshman Hailey Dodson.

“We may have no errors one game and come out the next and have 10,” Walker said. “Pressure situations — I expect to struggle in them. I hope not.”

Offensively, the Lady Tigers lost the conference’s player of the year in leadoff hitter Bethany Korte. She led the team is nearly every offensive category, including a team-best 23 stolen bases.

Vandiver and Franklin will likely bat at the top of the lineup. The middle will include Floyd, Harrah, Knarr and Preheim.

“We are capable of hitting the ball better than last year, but I don’t know if it will be consistent,” Walker said.

When his team does struggle, Walker hopes to rely on improved team speed.

“Speed will be a strength,” Walker said. “But at the same time, we will have to be aware of baserunning errors.”

The public will get its first glance at the new-look Lady Tigers at Thursday’s team scrimmage. Admission is sunflower seeds or Gatorade into the 6 p.m. event.

Houston’s season opener figures to be a tough one. The Lady Tigers host Strafford at 4:30 p.m. Monday.

Walker anticipates there may be tough stretches of the season for his young team. But he ultimately believes the freshman class will prove itself, especially to Floyd and the rest of the upperclassmen.

“I think she is really going to have fun this season and especially next season,” Walker said.

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