Lady Pats reloaded for 2016 campaign
By Chuck Livingston Sports Editor
Usually when a team makes consecutive state semifinal games, you’d expect that most key players would have moved on after one, or both, of those final four runs. That hasn’t been the case for the Marion Lady Patriots. Marion won 20 games in 2015 before falling in the Class 6A state semifinals to Sheridan on its home field, but somehow have managed to return seven starters from that squad this spring. “We’ve got a big senior class, several returning players that had great years last year, and everyone is excited too,” says veteran Marion head coach David Horton. Horton’s team went 12-2 in the 7A/6A-East last season, including a flawless 6-0 mark against their 6A-East competition, which gave them the top seed from that conference, as well as a bye in the state tournament. Once there, Marion rallied to beat El Dorado in the state quarterfinals, 3-1, before falling to eventual state runner-up Sheridan by a 4-0 tally. It was the second year in a row that Marion fell to Sheridan. “They had more timely hitting than we did,” said Horton of Sheridan. “It was frustrating, but at the same time, it was a good year. I think it left them a little hungry too, because they realize that we could still be pretty good.” In 2016, Marion still looks to have the makings of a competitive team on a statewide level, and its due in large part to that senior class that Horton was referring to. The Opening Day lineup projects to be made up of no less than five seniors, all of which had regular roles for the team last season. Mabry Watson, a four-year starter for the Lady Pats, will be counted on heavily both at shortstop and inside the pitching circle. Watson had a stellar 2015, which earned her an all-state selection after the year. Marion’s other all-state player was junior Hope Phipps. Phipps was Marion’s regular third basewoman for the second straight season, while also starting most of the Lady Pats game at pitcher. This season could see Phipps in a slightly different role after Phipps injured her shoulder during Marion’s run to the 2015 Class 6A state volleyball title, where she also earned all-conference honors as the team’s starting libero. Horton was hopeful that Phipps would be available to pitch and play third base, but said that second base is also a possibility. Senior Micah Tolleson should start behind the plate for the second straight season. Tolleson was an all-conference selection in 2015 after earning the catcher’s job before the season. At third base will be Raygan Shelton, a transfer from Mountain Home. Shelton was an all-state selection with the Lady Bombers last season, and should also see some time behind the plate. McKenzie Shirley saw time at third base and second base last season, and will still be called on to play there. Sophomore Destiny King will also be in the mix at those spots, as well as first base. Haley Cook will also get opportunities at first. Kristin Bolton, Blakeleigh Garrison, Morgan Weaver, Kim Harney and Camryn Martin make up the team’s outfield, with Weaver, Bolton and Garrison getting the most reps there last season. If it seems as though Marion has a lot of players able to play more than one position, that would be correct, and Horton prefers it that way. “I tell kids all the time that if you want to make yourself even more valuable, you should be able to play more than one position,” says the coach. “If you can only play second base, and we have someone better than you, then you have to sit down. But if you can play other spots, then there’s a spot that’s open.” The pitching rotation is still up in the air for Marion at this time. Watson still figures to get the lion’s share of appearances in the circle, but with Phipps’ status unknown, Horton has looked elsewhere for depth. Weaver and King have each gotten the call for an expanded role as pitchers this spring, and Horton has liked what he has seen. “That’s our group right now,” says Horton. Marion has lined up a non-conference schedule of powerhouse teams such as Bald Knob, Paragould and Greene County Tech, each of which should prepare the team for a 7A/6A-East that was strong last season, albeit maybe a bit top-heavy. Cabot won the conference last season with a 13-1 record, with its lone loss coming to Marion early in the year. The Lady Panthers would go on to face league foe North Little Rock in the Class 7A state final, where the Lady Charging Wildcats won its third consecutive crown. Marion split with those two teams last year, and Horton thinks that the conference could be better. “Those two (Cabot and North Little Rock) are back again, they’re always good,” said Horton. “I like to think we’ll be near the top, and I’d say that Jonesboro will be better this year.” Marion will open its season on Tuesday, March 8 at 4:30 against the Wynne Lady Yellowjackets.