The Houston Lady Tigers’ softball team is still young. At least seven projected starters are underclassmen.

They aren’t inexperienced.

Five sophomores return to the team after starting as freshmen. There were expected ups and downs in 2010 — the team finished 11-12 overall and 4-2 in conference — but combined with about 30 games this summer, third-year coach Willy Walker is hopeful his team can grow up fast.

“I’ve been around these girls for several years,” Walker said. “I have to keep reminding myself that they are mostly sophomores.”

Houston, which didn’t lose a player to graduation, returns all the key pieces of last year’s team. Leading the way are all-conference selections Carmen Floyd, Kayla Kelley, Taylor Franklin and Maddie Vandiver. They are joined by returning starters Belle Knarr, Kaylea Preheim and Hailey Dodson.

Junior Sadie Ashworth was a part-time starter in the outfield, giving the Lady Tigers eight players that saw regular playing time.

“We’re still young, but we’re experienced,” Walker said.

Floyd is Houston’s lone senior and returning starting pitcher. She started all 23 of the team’s games last year and finished with an 11-12 record. As the team’s cleanup batter, she hit .362 with two home runs, seven doubles, 14 RBIs and 14 runs.

Kelley, a junior, was the Lady Tigers’ top offensive player in her first season with the team. She led the team in batting average (.397) and RBIs (18) and tied for the team lead with 22 runs.

Vandiver and Franklin, the team’s fastest players, will again bat 1-2 in the lineup. Vandiver, a second baseman, hit .317 with 12 runs, 11 RBIs and nine steals. Franklin, a shortstop, batted .381 with 22 runs and a team-high 22 stolen bases.

“Team speed is definitely one of our strengths,” Walker said. “I think we’ll do a better job of baserunning this year and taking advantage of our speed.”

Knarr returns behind the plate and Kelley will again start at first base. The lone change on the infield may be at third. Walker said freshman Olivia Woosley is a candidate to start along with Preheim, who started at third last season, and Emily Harrison.

If Woosley wins the position battle at third, Preheim would likely start in center or left field. Harrison, who started one game at third base last year, is also a candidate for the outfield.

Dodson started in center and right field last year. Ashworth made a few starts in left. Kenzie Scheets, a junior, and freshman Lizzie Swindell will also be in the mix in the outfield.

“We have a couple outfield positions that haven’t been 100 percent filled,” Walker said. “It may be a game-by-game situation.”

One of the team’s biggest changes is the addition of Brent Hall, the head baseball coach at HHS who joins the softball team as an assistant. Walker said Hall has brought new drills and perspective to the Lady Tigers.

Houston opens the 2011 season Monday at Strafford — a team Walker said may be the best on the schedule. Regardless of the outcome, Walker hopes to see improvement throughout the season leading to districts. The program is still seeking its first district victory.

“We haven’t played our best at the end of the season, and that’s partly my fault,” Walker said. “Our goal is to be playing our best softball at districts and hopefully advance.”

Aug. 22 at Strafford 4:30 p.m.

Aug. 25 Stoutland 4:30 p.m.

Aug. 27 Houston Invitational TBA

Aug. 29 at Mansfield 4:30 p.m.

Aug. 30 Liberty 4:30 p.m.

Sept. 6 Salem 4:30 p.m.

Sept. 8 Laquey 4:30 p.m.

Sept. 9 Walnut Grove Tournament TBA

Sept. 12 Seymour 4:30 p.m.

Sept. 15 at Plato 4:30 p.m.

Sept. 17 Hollister Tournament TBA

Sept. 20 Mountain Grove 4:30 p.m.

Sept. 22 at Ava 4:30 p.m.

Sept. 27 at Thayer 4:30 p.m.

Sept. 29 Willow Springs 4:30 p.m.

Sept. 30 Newburg 4:30 p.m.

Oct. 3 Bakersfield 4:30 p.m.

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