Missy Gators retool after division title

Published 10:35 am Friday, February 27, 2015

In five short days, Vicksburg will get a chance to christen the field it has toiled on for over a year to complete.

The Missy Gators worked tirelessly on the newly-dubbed “Softball Swamp” in the offseason — both figuratively in practice and literally as makeshift groundkeepers — and they’ll finally get to put it to good use with the home opener Tuesday against Germantown.

They’ll open the season Saturday with a pair of classic games against Ridgeland and Florence at Florence High School.

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The Missy Gators have played a few games at the Softball Swamp on Army Navy Drive, as well as the entire slow-pitch season. The field has undergone some upgrades since the fall, with an entryway, a finished press box and concession stand, and exterior fencing all added.

“There are still a couple of things we have to do, but it’s just an amazing place. I’m excited,” Missy Gators coach Brian Ellis said. “I’m excited because I get to see these girls excited about it. They take pride in it.”

The year-old softball complex will house a team that is itself pretty young. With the departure of six seniors from last year’s Division 4-5A championship team, Vicksburg will rely on its four returning seniors to bookend an inexperienced roster that could include an eighth-grade starter at first base.

“We are young age-wise and we are young experience-wise,” Ellis said. “The experience level is a little bit different. I’m putting a lot on my junior pitcher, Olivia Oakes. She’s going to be our No. 1 this year.”

Ellis is hoping Oakes will be able to provide his team with a consistent starter who is able to pitch multiple games in a week and act as the team’s cornerstone.

“Basically, I’m just asking her to throw strikes. We can’t get outs if we don’t throw the ball over the plate,” he said. “She’s not a power pitcher. She’s not able to overpower people, but she’s got good enough control where, if she keeps working, we minimize the walks and make the plays behind her, we’ll be in a lot of games.”

Ellis said he’s used an offseason of conditioning and hitting drills to improve last year’s mediocre .264 team batting average.

“Our hitting has improved. I’ve just seen their improvements in practice,” Ellis said. “We’ve taken a lot of hacks, practice-wise. We can tell it’s made a difference.”

Perhaps the biggest piece to the puzzle is shortstop Torrey Daniels. She’s a versatile player with enormous range who is able to steal base hits from opposing hitters with her speed and glove. She also provides a formidable leadoff hitter for the team who gets on base and creates scoring opportunities.

“I would honestly put her up against any player in this whole entire area. I’m not just talking about Vicksburg. I’m talking about the whole area,” Ellis said. “She’s a phenomenal player. She has a great arm. Defensively, she reacts. There’s no ball that she doesn’t think she can’t get to.”

The Missy Gators begin their season this weekend in the Florence Classic before coming home to play Germantown — the team that knocked them out of the playoffs last season.

Ellis, who believes the strength of his team lies in how close they are, is confident the Missy Gators can put the wheels in motion to make a deep playoff run if they minimize their mistakes and develop their young players.

“We’d like to go further in the playoffs. We won district last year, and we’ve got another opportunity to win district this year,” Ellis said. “Of course, opportunity and potential are only as good as you make it. I have those expectations of winning. I really believe we can.”