HANCEVILLE, ALA. – Wallace State softball begins a new era Friday with first-year coach A.J. Daugherty now at the helm.
The program's championship expectations, however, remain the same.
Daugherty, who took over the program last June, and the Lions open the 2017 season in Galveston, Texas, at the Galveston College Invitational. Wallace State is scheduled to play five games over the opening weekend.
"We are ready to step in between the chalk lines and play against someone in a different colored jersey. It's been a learning curve for all of us since last summer. The players have worked hard ever since I arrived on campus and understand the culture we are trying to establish," said Daugherty, who inherited the Wallace State job after four seasons as the head coach at James Clemens High in Madison. "As this program has done in the past, it should produce champions on and off the field, but with that comes growing pains and the general highs and lows. We are trying to maintain the attitude that the season is a marathon and not a sprint. We have an opportunity to do something special in the first year if we are consistent."
Wallace State is the two-time defending Alabama Community College Conference (ACCC) champion, including winning eight of the last 10 titles. The program also won NJCAA Division I national championships in 2008 and 2013.
Wallace State went 49-22 last season and was perfect in ACCC postseason tournament play before making its 10th appearance in the NJCAA Division I national tournament.
Daugherty should be able to lean upon a few key returning sophomores as the new regime settles in.
Taylor Beshears, a NJCAA 3rd-team All-American and the 2016 ACCC North Division Player of the Year, returns to the Wallace State fold after a remarkable freshman season in which she set multiple single-season school records. The sophomore from Hewitt-Trussville hit .446 with 13 homers and a school-record 84 RBIs. She also set a school record with 33 doubles and finished with 104 hits. For good measure, Beshears scored a team-high 66 runs and had eight triples.
Amber Hammonds returns to patrol center field after hitting .318 with five homers, 38 RBIs and a team-high 28 stolen bases during her first season in a Wallace State uniform. Hammonds, also from Hewitt-Trussville, was an ACCC/Region 22 2nd-team and an ACCC North 1st-team selection.
On the mound, Brittany Ledbetter is back. The Tuscaloosa Academy product went 19-5 with a 3.32 ERA for the Lions last season, leading the team in strikeouts (136), appearances and innings pitched.
"We have a lot of talent and leadership within our sophomore class, and Taylor Beshears, Amber Hammonds and Brittany Ledbetter proved they can perform consistently in this conference," Daugherty said. "I'm excited to see what the class can do as a whole this season. I think we're going to see good things across the board. I respect and commend the sophomores for winning the championship they did last season, sticking through a coaching transition and believing in me."
Sophomores Jesse Butler and Savannah Bolton should each log significant innings in 2017. Butler, a Lexington High grad, went 5-4 with a 2.79 ERA as a freshman, while Bolton went 4-1 with a 3.99 ERA in 40 1/3 innings. Bolton is from Danville.
"I'm intrigued and interested to see our pitching staff and how it changes and improves throughout the year," Daugherty said. "We have some quality arms."
Karra Elam, a West Point product, is another returning sophomore to the lineup after she hit .368 with 19 RBIs as a freshman.
Haley Hughes (Collinsville), Lyndsay Reeves (Camdenton, Mo.), Bailee Daugherty (Owensboro, Ky.), and Ashton Gaddy (Jacksonville) round out the sophomore class.
Among the freshman class, Charlee West of Prattville and Madison Grant of Etowah should contribute right away after both were ASWA All-State selections during their senior seasons. West is slated to play first base for the Lions, while Grant will pitch and play the outfield.
Daugherty also expects Abby Connally and Erin Whitlock, both high school teammates at Sonoraville in Georgia, to be among the top freshman contributors along with West Blocton's Jodie Farnetti and Taylor Stalnaker, an infielder from Panama City, Fla.
Rounding out the freshman class are Tanner Robertson (Huntsville High), Jordin Englar (South Forsyth, Ga.) and Jordan Dunaway (Ohatchee).
Sallie Beth Burch, a member of Wallace State's first national championship team in 2008, is a first-year assistant with the Lions after serving on the Jacksonville State coaching staff.
"Sallie Beth deserves more credit for what she has done than I can put into words. She is huge for our program. The team can relate to Sallie Beth and see someone who played here, won a national championship and moved on to a successful Division I program," Daugherty said.
In addition to this weekend, Wallace State travels to Marianna, Fla., Gulf Shores and Columbus, Ga., for non-conference tournaments this season.
Wallace State's home opener is Feb. 24 vs. Columbia State. The Lions' home conference opener is March 18 vs. Snead State.
"I feel like the players we'll be able to put out there on a consistent basis can go toe-to-toe with anyone in the conference," Daugherty said. "Our goal isn't to set the world on fire early. Our goal is to be ready and peaking for conference play and the postseason."