Lady Tigers looking for separation, title shot

When Brent Hall learned Willow Springs was moving into a new district, his thoughts about his team’s 2016 season changed.

“My expectations got higher,” he said.

With the defending district champions and clear frontrunners to repeat gone, the Houston High School softball team enters the new season with an optimistic outlook. Hall said he believes his Lady Tigers are positioned to make a run at the program’s second-ever championship.

“Basically we went from trying to get into position to play Willow Springs to win a district title — catching them on a bad day and trying to find a way to beat them — to going out and competing with everyone in the district to win it,” Hall said of Class 2 District 1 that includes Ava, Gainesville, Hartville, Mansfield and Seymour. “All the teams in our district are comparable to us.”

Along with a potentially easier postseason path, HHS returns several key pieces from last year’s 11-14 team.

Hall had especially high praise for center fielder Tori McCloud, catcher Stephani Crewse and first baseman Kaitlyn Root.

“I feel like I have three girls that can start for anybody in the conference at their positions,” Hall said.

Also returning as starters for HHS are sophomore pitcher Emily Roberts and junior second baseman Taylor Chipps.

Houston will rely on its veterans as it looks to bounce back from its first losing campaign in Hall’s five-year tenure with the program.

Leading the way is McCloud, who had team highs of 28 runs scored, 14 steals and a .506 on-base percentage last season. She was a first-team all-conference selection.

“She makes us go,” Hall said. “She can run, hit and there’s no better outfielder in the league.”

Crewse is another important piece as she returns for her third season as starting catcher. She hit .310 last year while tying for the team lead with six doubles and ranking second with 22 RBIs.

“She’s one of the better catchers around,” Hall said. “I’ve told her that her hitting needs to be a little more consistent.”

Root, a junior, had a team-leading 24 RBIs last year while battling .328.

“If she’s not the best first baseman in the conference, she’s right there,” Hall said.

McCloud, Crewse, Root and Chipps will anchor the offense somewhere in the Nos. 1-5 spots in the lineup. Hall said Chipps has been the team’s best hitter this preseason.

The Lady Tigers have a new left side of the infield as junior Carly Crawford moves to shortstop and Madison Curtis starts at third base.

Flanking McCloud in the outfield will be junior Madison Lawson in left field and senior Ellie Bradshaw in right.

Freshmen Shelby Ozier (pitcher) and Kameron Hall (infield) as well as sophomore Shelby Korte (outfield) and Jessica Schivitz (infield) provide bench depth.

Hall said how the defense plays behind Roberts, who developed a changeup during the offseason, will be key to his team’s success. Houston begins the season Friday at Stoutland.

“I feel like we’re more prepared than we ever have been going into the first game. We’ve broken things down and worked through situations,” Hall said.

“But you just don’t know until you get out there for the first game.”

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