CONYERS - On the surface, it would appear Heritage softball was about to embark upon a rebuilding period.
Eight seniors graduated from a 23-win team that finished as the Region 8-AAAA runner-up, including workhorse starting pitcher Jamie Melson (now at Emory) and shortstop Whitney Phillips (Georgia State).
If Heritage is to navigate through a challenging region schedule, replacing Melson, who made 90 percent of the team's starts from 2006-2008, will be the No. 1 priority. Junior Nicki Walden, who went 6-2 in eight varsity starts last season, is prepared to take the reins.
"It's going to be hard to replace our experience, but we do have good players coming back, they just don't have the experience yet," said Lady Patriots coach Dickie Hightower. "We haven't gotten anybody that's going to strike out 12, 13 batters a game; (Walden) is capable, but she's really got to come through for us this year."
Walden's first tour of duty as the team's ace will come with returning battery mate Callie Alford. The junior catcher was an all-state selection in 2008 and leads a group of six returning juniors, including first baseman Amanda Voyles.
"The majority of our team this year is juniors, which is nice," Hightower said.
To reach the region title game again, and perhaps secure the No. 1 seed in the revamped state tournament, Heritage will have to get past defending champion Loganville, among others.
The Lady Red Devils, who won 26 games and have star hurler Katy Lewis back for her final season, aren't the only league foe Hightower has his eye on.
"Our subregion is probably going to be very competitive this year," said Hightower. "Behind Loganville, I think Salem is going to be significantly better; I think Rockdale will be competitive and Monroe will be competitive. (It's) going to be four teams fighting for two berths."
A few new faces come to Conyers for the 2009 season. Central Gwinnett transfer Rose Bish, a senior, will help strengthen the outfield, while sophomores Simone Davenport and Kayla Phillips and first-year player Melissa Drish (senior) are expected to contribute.
Kurt Aschermann Jr. can be reached at email@example.com
SideBar: At a glance
· Team: Heritage softball
· Coach: Dickie Hightower (fourth season)
· Last year's record: 23-10-1
· First games: Today vs. South Gwinnett and Apalachee (6:30 p.m. and 8:00 p.m.) in the South Gwinnett Tournament