Stephenville High School head softball coach Rus Mayes is looking forward to a speedy team this season, but some longtime standouts will be missing.
The Honeybees were scheduled to open their regular-season schedule on Tuesday, Feb. 12, at home against Comanche. Next, they are set to play Thursday and Saturday in the Lady Mavs Invitational, hosted by Eastland High School. Their first two games will be Thursday, at 8 a.m. versus Anson and 10 a.m. against Eastland. They won't play Friday, but will return to Eastland on Saturday for a noon matchup against Merkel, and an 8 p.m. contest versus Albany.
The Honeybees had a 23-15 record last season, but several graduation losses could have an impact. They included 2018 graduates Julia Flores and Morgan DiCiccio, both of whom had been voted all-district four consecutive years and signed to play collegiately, and Kristin Pettit.
The only two returning first-team all-District 8-4A players for Stephenville, Jessica Ebeling and Madison Gilder, have been selected to play in the Big Country Fellowship of Christian Athletes All-Star Game in San Angelo in June.
Ebeling is a senior outfielder and Gilder is a senior shortstop.
“We’ve got several outfield spots and infield spots to fill, for sure,” Mayes said. “The ones coming back, I feel good about. We’re looking to fill in with some younger ones, and keep the tradition rolling. It’s going to be a different team.”
Other key varsity returnees are senior pitchers Bianca Combs and Skye Gaitan, and sophomore catcher Katie McIrvin. Last season, Gaitan was a second-team all-district selection as an outfielder, and McIrvin earned honorable mention.
Flores was voted as the Newcomer of the Year in the SHS district her freshman year, and was voted Pitcher of the Year in 2016 and 2017.
DiCiccio had a .421 batting average as a senior, drove in 29 runs and led the team in runs scored with 44.
Pettit was chosen as the district’s Designated Player/Utility Player of the Year following her senior season.
The Honeybees will also be without junior Jettie Funderburgh, who had been the team’s starting second baseman last season. Funderburgh decided not to play this season, to have more time to pursue her avid participation in livestock shows as an FFA member.
The junior varsity Honeybees racked up a 13-2 season record in 2018, so some of those players could help in the transition to the new season.
Over the past two seasons, the team has transitioned from a power-hitting squad (26 home runs in 2017), to one with excellent team speed.
“This year we’re pretty fast,” Mayes said, noting that the Honeybees will be more likely to hit line drives and put pressure on opposing defenses with their base running threats.”
Mayes said the pitching staff will be handled with “a committee-type attitude” with the style of Combs and Gaitan complementing one another.
“Bianca throws a little harder, and might have more movement,” Mayes said. “Skye’s a little more consistent around the plate. Skye is emotionless, even-keeled. Bianca is more energetic.
“I have confidence in the two girls (pitching) this year, and I’m exciting about them having their time in the circle. Both pitched a little on the varsity last year.”
One new face, sophomore Kaida Tomlinson, could provide some help at several different positions, particularly in the void left by DiCiccio in center field. Tomlinson moved in from Flower Mound Marcus, where she played on JV.
Mayes said that in District 8-4A, Brownwood is likely the favorite to repeat as the champion. In 2017, the Honeybees were eliminated by Brownwood, two games to one, in a best-of-three series in their area playoff matchup. Last season, the Honeybees also fell in the area round, two games to one, to Graham.
The Lady Lions still have dominant pitcher Chyanne Ellett, who is only a junior.
“She’s a good hitter, as well,” Mayes said of Ellett. “After (Brownwood), the other four teams in the district can beat each other. We expect to compete every game out.”