One rung at a time

Lady Mountaineers looking to climb back into district race

Lenoir City — Kara Murr, Kelsey Hayes and Maddie McGhie were benched after an inning on Tuesday, and the three Lady Mountaineer seniors couldn’t have been happier.

Sophomore Tracy Hardiman busted a big, three-run homer over the fence in right center in the top half of the first. Murr worked Lenoir City one-two-three in the pitching circle in the bottom of the inning. Heritage would have little trouble in this one, and Lady Mountaineer coach Mark Dowlen knew it.

The young kids needed the work. They needed a game where they were largely in control of the outcome. Accordingly, when the Lady Mountaineers returned to the diamond for the Lenoir City half of the second, Murr, Hayes and McGhie, excepting a brief return in the last half inning to close it out, took the rest of the day off.

Heritage cruised in their absence, rolling to a 16-0, five-inning victory.

Tuesday’s eruption was in stark contrast to a 1-0, nine-inning loss to District 4AAA heavyweight Farragut on Monday. Murr had been brilliant in the pitching circle, striking out nine. Hayes had come up with a spectacular grab in center field to spark the defense, with help from McGhie’s steady glove in right.

“We did everything (Monday) night to win a close game,” Dowlen said. “So did Farragut, and they got the break.”

As had been the case in four other 1-0 losses this season, the Lady Mountaineers (6-8, 2-2) struggled to add the necessary offense.

“It’s upsetting,” Hayes said, “but it only makes us want it even more.”

That’s why Tuesday’s outburst meant so much.

It wasn’t just the run production, mind you. It wasn’t just stringing together the hits with runners in scoring position. It’s who was doing it, without McGhie, Hayes and Murr out there to lead the way, which made all the difference to Dowlen.

“It’s not a young team by age,” he said. “It’s a young team by experience.”

In addition to Murr, Hayes and McGhie, Heritage carries six juniors on this year’s roster, but innings played for most of them over the course of their careers has been sparse. Hayes, McGhie and Murr have been regulars since their freshman seasons. Junior pitcher/third baseman Miranda Rayburn and junior catcher Tiffany Ervin have earned the stripes as well.

The remainder of the roster, including three freshmen and three sophomores, is largely untested.

The 2008 Lady Mountaineers are two years removed from the team that ripped through the season on the way to a state tournament berth and a school-record finish. Last season’s edition, highlighted by the powerful pitching arm of Shelley Fagg and the leadership and glove work of first baseman Kaitlin Gourley, was arguably just as strong.

Their absence this season, coupled with a couple of juniors that didn’t return this spring, has left McGhie, Hayes and Murr at the helm of a young and/or inexperienced group. The closes losses have followed in due course.

“You had six kids who’d dominated the playing time,” Dowlen said, “so this year’s juniors haven’t had to see the tough action. It’s been a tough start just trying to mesh. It’s been a teaching year.”

That in no way means Hayes, McGhie and Murr are conceding the season in their final campaign.

“They want to see this team successful when they leave,” Dowlen said. “They let the young kids know what they expect and what it means to be a Lady Mountaineer.”

Patience is the best course of action at this point, Hayes said. The hits and runs will come.

“You can’t get down on yourself,” she said. “You can’t give up. You just have to work that much harder. One game at a time, every game, you step up another rung.”

You teach and lead as much as you can, Murr said. At the same time, “You don’t take it easy on them, either,” she said. “We’re focused on helping each other get better and getting better as a team.”

Defensively, there’s more than enough on hand for the Lady Mountaineers to return to their accustomed place at the front of the district race. Murr’s deliveries from the circle rival those of Murr. Hayes is as good as they come in center, with McGhie equally adept in right.

Rayburn, who relieves Murr in the circle when not at third, and Ervin, one of the league’s top arms behind the plate, are on par with any to come before them.

“We’re where we want to be defensively, and that’s one thing we stress,” Dowlen said. “I’m defensive coach. Defensively, we’ve got two great pitchers in Murr and Rayburn. The thing is, you don’t win games if you don’t score runs. We’ve got to start producing base runners and producing hits when we get those runners on.

“It’s easy to go up and hit with nobody out or nobody on.”

You’ll be hearing from bright young stars like freshman Katie Brown. A slap-hitting speedster, she has the travel ball credentials of a player destined to have a significant impact on the high school scene. Like the rest of an experienced team Murr, Hayes and McGhie are stewarding, though, she’s going to need some time to catch up to high school pitching. It can’t be rushed.

“Early on in the season and the tournaments we went to, our focus has been on progressing,” Dowlen said.

At least on Tuesday that focus was laser sharp.

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