COVINGTON - Eastside's softball team will have a lot of eyes upon it as it starts the 2009 season.
The Eagles graduated eight starters and have a new head coach. Of course, the one player coming back is a dominant force. Last season, pitcher Amanda Henderson set a new school record and was 12th in the state record book for most strikeouts in one season, fanning 365 batters.
"Amanda Henderson will have the biggest impact (this season). Pitching is our only strength with average hitting," first-year head coach Jason Stokes said.
One thing Stokes is having to do to make his team more competitive is move players around to put them where they are needed the most rather than where they feel comfortable playing.
Three players having to learn new positions are freshman shortstop Victoria Reich, who had been a catcher, sophomore third baseman Emily Almond, who also was a catcher, and junior left fielder Kenya Shakoor, who had been playing the infield.
Securing the infield for the Lady Eagles are Taylor Causey (first base), Ashley Ralston (second) and Amanda Hawkins (catcher).
Bionca Reid will be posted in center field with Erin Steele playing right field.
Also on the team are Maryanne Fearnow, Savannah Upshaw and Frannie Martin.
Eastside's reputation for having a strong and quality team is going to be a challenge for Stokes to maintain with such a young group. One way he is doing this is pushing the girls to their limits in hopes they will start pushing each other without him as they win one game at a time.
"(I) make my girls play as hard as they can for as long as they can. Coach (Michael) Poor and I have pushed and pushed the girls," Stokes said. "We know what the girls are capable of and we're not gonna stop pushing until they realize what they are capable of."
Despite a change in personnel Stokes still has high hopes for the team. He feels they can finish second in Region 8-AAA, behind 2008 Class AAA state champion Oconee County.
A second-place finish will go a long way this season with the change in playoff format. Rather then a sectional where the top four teams go to state, they will play two rounds at the higher seed before starting the state tournament in Columbus to crown the state champion, a system which Stokes prefers.
"(This is) much better. If you go in as a No. 1 or No. 2 seed it will make it a lot easier to make state. You are playing a weaker team," he said. "In the old format you would have to play at least a 2 seed and usually a 1 seed."
Manny Fils can be reached at email@example.com.
SideBar: At a glance
· Coach: Jason Stokes (first year)
· Last year's record: 28-6-1
· First game: Friday, vs. Greater Atlanta Christian at 6:30 p.m. in the South Gwinnett Diamond Classic at Brookwood