Sometimes it just takes the right magic to have postseason success. Finding that extra push once the regular season ends can be the most difficult thing to achieve and the Grayson Lady Vikings are finding that out.
They have advanced to the Region V Tournament each of the past three years but gone 1-6 once bracket play got started. Last spring was an 0-2 finish with the losses by a combined five runs.
Grayson improved both its overall and conference record from 2018, ending 23-24 and 15-17 in North Texas Junior College Athletic Conference play. But the postseason struggles are what lingers as the Lady Vikings open the season with a non-conference double-header at Kilgore at 1 p.m. on Friday and then host Carl Albert on Sunday for a double-header starting at 4 p.m. with the second game being the first contest there under the lights.
“That’s been our snakebite the last few years — injuries,” Grayson head coach Michael McBrayer said. “We think we have the depth to able to overcome that. We’re excited about the future.”
Grayson, which is picked to finish sixth in the NTJCAC, will have to replace several key pieces — none bigger than first-team All-American and conference MVP Jade Miller, an outfielder who hit .466 with 18 home runs, 59 RBI, 23 walks and 19 steals.
“You don’t replace that with one person. They don’t come around every year,” McBrayer said. “You replace it with contributions from everyone; hopefully there will be a couple of overachievers.”
Also gone is shortstop Rien Milliken, who hit .324 with five homers and 34 RBI, first baseman Danielle Humphrey, who sported a .298 average with six homers and 25 RBI as a second-team all-conference pick, outfielder Kamrie Harrison, who batted .338 with 13 steals, and third baseman Kaylee Waters, who hit .362 with 12 doubles, 13 homers and drove in 49.
There is some power returning to the lineup as catcher Cheyenne Stark was a second-team all-conference choice after producing a .376 average with nine doubles, 14 home runs and a team-best 63 RBI.
“She’s a highly-recruited sophomore we’re going to ride offensive and defensively,” McBrayer said. “She’s a plus-athlete behind the plate as well.”
Carmen Eilertsen is also back after being a second-team all-conference selection at designated player with a .379 average, three homers, 32 RBI and 14 steals.
Eden Lawson is back after batting .314 but will be moving from second base over to first.
Melinda Martinez is the lone returner in the outfield after hitting .325 and is going from right field to left. She will be joined by Eilertsen, who takes over in right, and freshman Zoe Lott, who is one of five Lady Vikings from Victoria, British Columbia, in center.
This year’s lineup isn’t as focused on power but rather speed and athleticism.
“We made a conscious effort to strengthen up the defensive side of the ball,” McBrayer said. “Come at you from a little different angle with the lineup — those singles are now doubles and the doubles are now triples.”
Freshman Maci Sanders will get the nod at second base and form a double-play combo with classmate Ali Henderson at short.
Third base is a spot where several Lady Vikings will have an opportunity to start, including a rotation of Stark and her backup catcher, Lauren Thomas, as well as fellow freshman Dominique Rodriguez.
“Feel like that will keep a good rotation going to keep fresh legs behind the plate,” McBrayer said.
Any of those three could also be used as the designated player and sophomore Cassie Lawrence is battling for at-bats as well.
“We have some returners that didn’t get a lot of time last year that deserve some at-bats,” McBrayer said. “We’ve got some really good options there because we have so many options defensively available.”
In the circle, all but 15.2 innings last season came from freshmen but that doesn’t mean there weren’t changes.
The only returning hurlers are Lauren Mentzer, who was 3-5 with a 5.28 ERA in just 58.1 innings due to an injury and Eilertsen, who threw 26 innings.
Lefty Amelia Va’a is gone after producing a 17-11 record and a 4.27 earned run average in 34 games (22 starts) with 152.1 innings.
“We didn’t have the depth last year with pitching to sustain a run,” McBrayer said. “We worked at adding quality pitching. We feel like we’re a lot deeper in the circle.”
The newcomers looking to make an impact include freshman Dylann Kaderka, who was 25-2 with a 1.58 ERA in helping Keller to the Class 6A state tournament.
“She had a tremendous, tremendous high school athletic career,” McBrayer said. “Lauren and Dylann are going to be the workhorses. With the bullpen, we’ll see who has the hot hand.”
Also vying for innings are freshmen Brianna Lucrecio and Lindsey Rawls.
All the early preparation is to gear up for the NTJCAC schedule, which begins February 26 with a twin bill at home against Vernon.