The Lady Yellow Jackets knew they had improved. Any progress is good progress when you are coming off finishing last in the standings and won just a handful of games.
But Denison exceeded expectations as last season went on. By the second week every victory was a high-water mark over 2018. By the second week of district play they held a playoff spot through the end of the regular season. By the second week of the playoffs, they were still playing.
All of the success that comes with achieving milestones for the program, and bringing back seven of the starters who accomplished them, has pushed expectations for this season to levels not seen by the Lady Jackets in a very long time.
Being able to handle the pressure coming with all of that begins as Denison opens the season by hosting Denton at 7 p.m. on Tuesday.
“We talk about it. They have to have expectations of greatness because if you don’t, you won’t be,” Denison head coach Jeremy Green said. “Last year was a great season and we want this year to be great. We show up every morning and work really hard and the hard work is paying off.”
The Lady Jackets returned the playoffs with a third-place finish in District 10-5A and then made it all the way to the Class 5A Region II quarterfinals before losing a series against Frisco Reedy to finish with a 21-13 record. Denison was trying to reach the region semis for the first time but was forced to settle matching the best postseason run for the program, tying the 2006 and 1997 teams with third-round appearances.
The Lady Jackets did have their first 20-win campaign ever, breaking the old mark of 19 set in 2006, and earned their first playoff victory in 13 years.
It was a stark turnaround for Denison, which had won just four games and was last in the district standings in 2018. Of course now that year looks to be turning into a blip since the Lady Jackets were district champs in 2017.
Denison will bring back two-thirds of the lineup after losing first baseman Shayla Love, who was second-team all-district, outfielder Haley Earnhart and utility Hailey Jaresh to graduation.
“We hit the ball and we’ve got to hit the ball again this year,” Green said. “We know what the defense can do and we have a fundamentally-sound pitcher so we’ve got to just keep scoring runs like we have.”
Leading the returners in the lineup is senior center fielder Elizabeth Linwood, a four-year starter who was first-team all-district and a Texas Girls Coaches Association All-Star last season after batting .417 with eight doubles, five triples, 10 home runs, 37 RBI and scored 43 times.
“Liz takes care of business,” Green said. “She’s looking phenomenal.”
Junior Madison Carter is entering her third year as a starter and was named honorable mention all-district last spring as she ended the season at shortstop. She hit .359 with seven doubles and 29 RBI. She will take over at first base this spring.
Jaci Garvin is another four-year starter for the Lady Jackets who bounced back and forth between third base and catcher as a junior on the way to honorable mention all-district accolades with a .311 average and 19 RBI.
Sophomore Ashlinn Hamilton took over in the circle and she also delivered at the plate as a freshman, earning district Newcomer of the Year. Hamilton hit .500 with five doubles, eight triples, three homers, 31 RBI, scored 33 times, walked 23 times and won 16 games with 101 strikeouts.
“One thing she kind of struggled with was, you get to the bottom of the order and she would overthink things, overdo stuff,” Green said. “Outside of that you couldn’t have asked more from a freshman.”
Two other sophomores made immediate impacts on the lineup as ninth graders — Jewel Hiberd (.341 with seven doubles and 24 RBI) was an honorable mention all-district pick with time spent at third, where she will start in 2020, and catcher while Hannah Grinspan (.348 and 29 RBI) eventually settled in at second and will stay there.
Senior Keanu Hall, who started in the outfield last season after opening at second base, is now penciled in at shortstop.
“She came to me and said she wanted to return to the infield,” Green said. “She’s put in a lot of work to be ready.”
With Hall’s move, the corner outfielders around Linwood will both be new this season and be a pair of freshmen. Camryn Nixon is in left and Kiki Carter is in right.
The designated player is another ninth-grader in Jocee McCuller.
Options off the bench will include senior outfielder/catcher Jacque Mathews and junior outfielder Precious Melton.
In addition to competing in the College Station, Allen and McKinney tournaments, Denison has non-district games against Gunter, Bells, Decatur and Aubrey before starting 10-5A play on March 17. The Lady Jackets seek a postseason return in a district that once again includes Sherman, Princeton, McKinney North, Wylie East and Lovejoy.
“We’re going to find out real fast where we stand,” Green said. “We’re going to be confident. We don’t want to shy away from the hard work we’ve put in.”