By Joshua Koch
HOUSTON – Seniors move on, freshmen fill in and the identity of a team can drastically alter from one year to the next on the diamond.
No. 3 Atascocita, a State Semifinalist team from a year ago, is experiencing those changes heading into 2017.
A solid senior class led by Baylor’s Shelby McGlaun and Texas’ Kaitlyn Washington has moved on and now this is Tierrah Williams and Sarah Cedillo’s team to lead.
“It’s a new identity this year and figuring out how all the pieces fit together is always a challenge at the beginning of the year,” Atascocita third-year coach Ashley Boyd said.
Kicking off the year, Boyd wanted to change things up.
Not attending the Bryan-College Station Softball Classic just up the road, Boyd and company loaded up the buses and set the GPS for Austin and the Westlake/Bowie Varsity Softball Tournament this past weekend.
In a field littered with playoff teams from a year ago, including Austin Westlake, whom the Lady Eagles beat in the Region 2-6A Area Round, and Hays, which Atascocita beat in the very next round on the way to Austin, the Lady Eagles had their season-opening tests.
Just like last year, Atascocita notched wins against Westlake, 6-5 in the tournament opener, and Hays, 2-1 in the tournament title game, along with a 6-5 win against Midway, whom Kingwood had to beat last year to make Regional Finals to eventually face Atascocita.
“Those teams have the same expectations that we do, so it’s great to get in there and win some of those battles,” Boyd said.
Along with those three wins, Atascocita registered victories against Cleburne and New Braunfels to finish the weekend a perfect 5-0 and begin the season unblemished.
In the tournament, Atascocita outscored its opponents 45-20, Williams was lights out in the circle and on fire at the plate, belting six home runs for the weekend, while freshman Skylar Wilabay emerged as a solid threat at the plate.
“Coming out of the weekend I felt good where our bats are,” Boyd said. “I think they came alive. They did a great job in situational hitting. Our defense looked phenomenal, all around we played really solid this week. That was the outing I was waiting on to get moving in the right direction. The girls did a great job against great teams.”
For the past few years the focus of any opponent when stepping into the box against Atascocita was how to find success against Shelby McGlaun?
Now with McGlaun off to college, it is Williams’ time to shine in Atascocita.
Last season, playing second fiddle to McGlaun, the University of Houston signee went 4-0 with a 0.99 ERA in 56.2 innings of work, striking out 75 and walking just nine.
The success of last year has carried over for the senior.
Williams opening the year at 5-0 with a 2.10 ERA, allowing nine runs in 30 innings of work, while striking out 55 and walking 11.
“She’s done a great job stepping into the role,” Boyd said about Williams filling the every day starting pitcher spot. “She had to throw four of the five games because our No. 2 got sick on us. She’s doing a great job.”
At the plate, Williams is just as if not more dangerous.
Williams is hitting .550 at the plate with a team-leading 18 RBIs and six home runs, recording multi-home run games against Cleburne and New Braunfels during the weekend.
“She’s had to take somewhat of a back seat to Shelby (McGlaun) for the past two years,” Boyd said. “To finally get to take on that workload and be the ace of the staff and not only what she’s doing in the circle but also with the bat is absolutely impressive.
Not playing like a freshman
Lillian Grotenhuis, London Marder, Skylar Wilabay and Lesly Miranda.
A list of freshmen that have stepped up and filled vital roles for the Lady Eagles in the past three seasons under Boyd’s guidance.
Grotenhuis did it in 2015, batting .214 in 16 games for the Lady Eagles, Marder in 2016 hitting north of .300 with four runs batted in and Wilabay and Miranda to open this year.
With some unforeseen early season injuries, including losing Kyla Snow to a season-ending achilles injury, Wilabay was called into service much earlier than expected.
“Skylar is playing a key role for us right now,” Boyd said. “We lost Kyla (Snow), who went down with an achilles injury. We needed someone in there that’s protecting (Tierrah Williams) ensuring that she’s getting good pitches to hit and that she’s getting to hit. Skylar did a great job this weekend stepping into that role.”
Wilabay in her first six games has hit .556, driven in six runs, registering a double and a home run for Atascocita. In the game against Midway, Wilabay drove in the game-winning run helping the Lady Eagles capture the victory.
The other freshman making Boyd ponder on who starts behind the dish is Miranda.
Miranda made a good case, finishing with the third-best batting average on the team from the weekend hitting .545 in her debut.
“With Lesly (Miranda), we have three awesome catchers to pick from,” Boyd said. “Lesly’s in there fighting for time and I believe that position is up for grabs. She’s doing everything she needs to do to make me think really hard about who gets that position.”
The opening weeks of the season has provided Boyd with some injuries to manage.
Of course the loss of Snow, who had surgery on Feb. 15 to repair a 90 percent torn achilles muscle, and then on top of that the loss of Lexy Vasquez.
Vasquez had unfortunate accident at first base, Boyd said where she fell with an extended arm breaking her left arm. Atascocita is expecting to have her back around the second round of District 21-6A games.
With the UIL realignment in February of 2016, Atascocita will have a new district to battle.
Move out The Woodlands, Oak Ridge, Conroe and College Park and shift Atascocita to 21-6A remaining with rival Kingwood and Summer Creek, while adding Sterling, North Shore, Goose Creek Memorial and C.E. King.
“I think with this district a lot of teams in it will have absolutely nothing to lose whenever it comes to playing us and Kingwood,” Boyd said. “A lot of teams that are in that boat get really scrappy and can sneak up and get one from somebody that maybe on paper they shouldn’t. i think that’s our big thing, we’re going to prepare for each team as if they are the best team in the state.”
To get ready for District 21-6A and eventually the playoffs, Boyd took a different approach this season.
Opting out of a second tournament, which would have come a little after district play started, Boyd went with adding a couple of Saturday games throughout the season – Montgomery and Cy-Fair on March 4, Brazoswood on April 8 and Magnolia West on April 22.
“I think a lot of it was I knew we weren’t going to have three pitchers this year,” Boyd said. “I don’t want to run my pitchers thin. We’ve got two that do a great job and there’s no sense in putting them in a second tournament when we didn’t really need it. The games we were fortunate to schedule on Saturdays are just as good if not better than teams we could have played in any tournament.”
What not playing in a second tournament does for Atascocita will payoff later in the season.
With nearly a two-week break from games, Boyd said it allows her to go out and scout other teams while her players rest their arms and legs coming back refreshed giving them better longevity later in the year.
Once the break is over, games against Port Neches-Groves, Montgomery and Cy-Fair set the table for the District 21-6A opener on March 7 against Kingwood.
This will be the first time Atascocita and Kingwood have clashed since the 2016 Region 2-6A Final – the Lady Eagles sweeping the Lady Mustangs with 4-0 and 3-1 victories punching their ticket to the program’s first ever trip to the UIL State Softball Tournament.
“I would venture that Kingwood feels the same, I hate that we’re opening district play against each other,” Boyd said. “It is what it is. Whenever we get on the field together it’s a dynamic game. Our programs can play ball and that rivalry is so heated across the board that it’s just a fun thing to be a part of.
“I think to get that first one out of the way is going to be a good feeling and I’m curious to see how the outcome looks.”
Writing the next chapter
The 2016 season is one the community, players and coaches associated with Atascocita will never forget.
A 32-7 overall record, State Tournament Semifinalist and a slew of collegiate-level softball players off the team but none of that matters in 2017.
Rather the record and deep run in the playoffs has done nothing but set the next bar set for this current group of Lady Eagles to try and surpass.
“We don’t refer to last year’s team,” Boyd said. “We don’t use last year’s team other than we have to top that team. We’ve got to find a way to top it and it’s all about what we can do with the girls we have now and how we can get that job done.”
Looking at Atascocita’s start to this season, the next chapter is being written.
Four players hitting above .500 with at least 20 plate appearances, one of those being a freshman, who leads the team in that category.
Williams stepping into her role as the leader of this team in the circle and at the plate, and all the other pieces of a puzzle which lost seven to graduation a year ago, fitting in perfectly.
“We have a lineup that repeats itself,” Boyd said. “We have table setters that are good about finding ways on and then we have those people that are good about driving people in. Especially in a less than two out situation. Our lineup kind of doubles on itself and I think we’re good about turning our lineup over early in the game and the earlier we do that the more at-bats we get off a pitcher.”
Entering this season, the expectations are high around the Atascocita softball program due to the success of recent years.
Three-straight District Championships, Regional Tournament appearances, 121-25 record since 2013 and a streak of four-straight seasons of 25-plus wins in tact entering this year has put the Lady Eagles among the elite softball programs in the Lone Star State.
The calendar flipping to a new season, losing players, having to retool the lineup Boyd said doesn’t change anything.
“I think the expectations of our program doesn’t change,” she said. “We expect to be competitive, we expect to compete at a high level. I think we’re really good at the same time of having a short term memory. Last year is done. We’ve got new pieces, missing pieces but in the end we’re just writing the next story in this book.”