2023 season preview: The Callaway softball team is looking for even more success with its sophomore core
Published 9:00 am Thursday, July 27, 2023
The Callaway softball team is going into year three under head coach Josh King. The team went from 9-16 and limping into the playoffs as a third seed in King’s first year to 15-16 and a second place finish in the region last season.
The playoff format completely shifted last season from a normal 32-team bracket to super regionals where four teams are hosted by the top seed to decide who gets to compete in the finals among eight teams. The format change brought with it some confusion, but the team was also able to win its first playoff game since 2017 when they beat Walker 17-1 to finish amongst the top-24 teams in AA. The Cavaliers season ended as they lost a tight affair with Murray County 12-8 with a spot in the sweet 16 on the line.
Despite the leaps forward the team made last season, King is not resting on his laurels.
“We look back at how much hard work took us to where we got last year, but at the same time we want to close the book on last season,” King said. “Every year is different, and this is a new group of girls.”
The sophomore core will be leading the way for Callaway this year as King deploys an extremely young team. Ten of his players will be sophomores with just two juniors and two seniors on the roster.
“We have 10-12 sophomores, so it is a really young group,” King said. “Being such a young team has everybody energized because it feels like we have something to prove this year.”
While youthful, the team is chalk full of experience and the team will be looking for even more playoff success this year.
At the top of the order will be two experienced pitchers — junior Kaitlyn Williams and sophomore Mackenzie Toney. The two pitchers bring different qualities to the team and both are looking to improve on strong 2022 campaigns.
“Both of them are perfectionists and real competitors that always want to win,” King said. “They are a year older, and they are becoming real leaders for the team because some of the younger girls look up to them because of how they hold themselves accountable and go about practice everyday.”
Williams was first team region 5-AA all-region last season as a sophomore. While Toney is primarily a pitcher, Williams is a formidable offensive player as well, hitting .358 last season with a .442 on base percentage.
Toney got thrown in the deep end as a freshman, starting a ton of big games and being named to the second team all-region.
“She has learned how to not get so frustrated with herself when something doesn’t go perfect,” King said. “She used to beat herself up if something wasn’t the exact way she wanted it.”
Behind these two, Kinley Smith is the next viable pitcher. The sophomore did not pitch last season as she dealt with a hand injury, but her versatility could see her earn some time on the mound this year.
“She has had some thumb injuries in recent years, and its finally getting healed up, so I think she will have a bigger role this season on the mound,” King said.
Behind the plate will be a familiar face as Karlie Walker is set to get the nod once again this year.
“She was all-region defensive player of the year last year and caught over 300 innings last year for us,” King said. “It’s Karlie’s job, and she was phenomenal last year, and I would expect nothing less this year.”
Walker was named to the first team all-region last year and will be a reliable figure behind the plate for the pitchers who have developed chemistry with their stalwart backstop.
Walker will be a junior this year and expected to take on more of a leadership role as the team has just four total upperclassmen. Williams will serve as the backup catcher.
Who starts where in the infield is still being sorted out, but there are definitely some names written in pen on the scoresheet.
At the top of the list is senior Ava Shuford. A formidable threat in any offensive lineup, Shuford also started at first base last season, but could find a new role in the infield this year.
She was named to the first team all-region and was the Cavaliers most dominant hitter, producing a slashline of .413 with an on base percentage of .471 while leading the team in hits (31), runs (26) and RBIs (19).
“She came on really strong at the end of last year and we could see her potentially make a move across the diamond to third base because she has a heck of an arm,” King said. “She will definitely be a big part of our infield at one of the corners.”
When Williams is not on the mound, she will likely serve as the team’s starting shortstop. The Cavaliers graduated only two players from last year’s team, one being Mac Rhodes, the former starting shortstop, who was one of the four first team all-region players from the 2022 squad.
“Kaitlyn has looked really good in the infield. and I could see her being our starting shortstop right now,” King said.
The other two starting spots in the infield are likely to be occupied by sophomores Savannah Rice and Kinley Smith — both players who were named to the second team all-region and proved versatile with their ability to play in multiple positions. Rice hit .311 with 14 runs scored and 13 RBIs while Smith hit .367 with 16 runs scored and 13 RBIs.
“Those two work very hard and we are really excited about what these two girls can do as sophomores,” King said. “It’s crazy to think that we still have them for three more seasons.
“They are going to be important parts of the infield with Kinley playing either corner spot.”
The Cavaliers will be looking to replace a senior in the outfield as Emma Bryan proved to be the heartbeat of the team the last couple of years, providing consistent offense in the leadoff spot as well as top quality defense.
Junior Madison Kemp looks to have earned the starting center fielder spot. She played sporadically, featuring in just two games last year.
“She is looking like our centerfielder right now,” King said. “She is super athletic and can cover a lot of ground and has a good arm. I feel good about her locking down centerfield for us.”
Senior Kylah Harris has battled back from a knee injury she suffered with the flag football team last year and will likely figure into the outfield equation at some point this season.
“I don’t think she is quite there yet, but she is a name that could figure into the outfield,” King said. “She has been busting her tail with our athletic trainer Rob Dicks, who does a phenomenal job with our athletes.
“We are excited to see what she brings to the table when she gets back on the field.”
Sophomores Keira Trone and Brianna Pattillo could figure into the outfield as well. Both players received some varsity playtime last year as freshmen, appearing in 15 and eight games, respectively.
If one of the freshmen or another player steps up to fill in an infield role, Rice could find herself starting in the outfield. Her versatility gives King a lot of flexibility as she can start in a number of roles.
“Savannah is probably the most versatile athlete we have on our team,” King said. “She can play second base or short or any spot in the outfield. With that girl it doesn’t matter, she will find a place to play and play it well.”
FRESHMAN TO WATCH:
Bella Cleveland could see herself earn a starting role at some point in her first year at the high school level. The freshman stands over 6 feet tall and could potentially offer Callaway a little something different in their lineup than what they have had previously under King.
“She has a big bat, and we could potentially see her at one of the corner infield spots,” King said. “I would be willing to bet that she will be in the lineup as an extra hitter early in the season.”
WHEN DOES IT START:
The Cavaliers will host the Callaway Classic on Aug 4-5 at Shuford Fields to open its season.