Owen softball aims for the top of the conference

Fred McCormick

Last season the Warlassies softball team surprised many opponents by going 9-3 in the Western Highlands Conference. One of Owen’s crowning achievements was handing eventual conference champion Polk its first and only loss in conference play.

However, with a 2-1 start this season and a roster filled with athletes - including a sophomore pitcher who recorded more than 200 strikeouts as a freshman - and a lineup that boasts three players who batted over .400 a year ago, it’s unlikely the Warlassies will catch anyone off guard in 2016.

That’s just fine with Warlassies’ head coach Jenny Johnson, who believes her team is in a good position to improve on last season’s 9-7-1 overall record.

“We have another year of experience under our belt, and we’re looking to compete at the top of the conference and be competitive in the postseason as well,” she said.

Last season the region was introduced to Owen pitcher Jaiden Tweed, a freshman. Her rookie outing included nine wins as a starting pitcher - 201 strikeouts in 102.2 innings pitched.

As strong as Tweed’s start was, Johnson sees room for growth in her pitcher’s sophomore season.

“I would like to see her get her walks down this season,” she said. “She had great strikeout numbers last year, but I think you can always improve on consistency and accuracy.”

Tweed co-led the team with 16 RBIs, along with her longtime catcher Ashley Valencia, who hit an impressive .519 last season as a freshman. The left-handed Valencia had a “big start” to her high school career, according to Johnson, who is relying on the sophomore to pick up where she left off last season, offensively.

“She’s typically in that third spot in our order,” Johnson said. “We need to get those first two batters on so we can get her a chance to pick up RBIs. And she can bunt, slap or hit for power, so she gives us a lot of tools to use in that spot.”

One of the players responsible for getting on base before Valencia’s turn in the lineup is junior Anissa Avila. The speedy center fielder got two hits in four at-bats and a stolen base against Asheville in Owen’s home opener on March 7. That kind of statistical line is quite common for Avila, the leadoff batter for the Warlassies.

Avila stole 13 bases in 13 attempts last year and was second on the team in hitting, with a .491 average. She possesses a set of skills that Johnson said the team can use to manufacture runs.

“Anissa can bunt, slap, hit and do it while bringing such a high intensity,” Johnson said. “Her speed and her smarts on the bases make me comfortable that if we can get her on base, then we can get her around. She goes 100 percent with everything.”

Defensively, Owen’s middle infield is sophomore Caitlyn Ledford and senior Livie Presley. Ledford spent most of her time at shortstop last season, while Presley was out with a knee injury. With the senior’s return to the lineup this season, Ledford has moved over to second base to make room for Presley at short.

At the plate Ledford was third on the team, with 14 RBIs in 2015. She pitched two innings, allowing no runs and striking out three batters. Ledford also pitched the final inning when the Warlassies hosted Asheville last week.