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SHEPHERDSVILLE – After being an assistant coach at Bullitt Central for the previous 12 years, Mike Phillips will get a chance to coach the softball from the top spot this spring.
Phillips moves over one spot on the bench to replace Buddy Gallemore who resigned after last season to work on an advanced college degree and who has since become an assistant coach at Midway College. Phillips has mainly been the pitching coach for the Lady Cougars, but now will oversee all aspects of the program.
The first job for Phillips was to increase the number of girls in the program. There were times over the past several years when the team would dress just 10 players for games and there were seldom more than 12 in the dug-out.
That hurdle was cleared quickly as Phillips and his coaching staff have 41 players in the program this spring. The new coach is looking at fielding two freshmen teams for games this spring. In addition, there are 18 players on the varsity.
Still, this is a program with only three seniors and only two of those were on the team last spring. The good news is that those two seniors hold down the key positions of pitcher and catcher, jobs they each held last season.
This season for the Lady Cougars will revolve around senior Hailey Szpila doing the pitching while her battery mate will be Haley Dukes. Szpila pitched well over 90 percent of the innings last season while Dukes caught every inning.
Because of the circumstances, Szpila and Dukes also are the team leaders.
“Hailey and Haley have taken some of the leadership roles as captains with the younger girls,” Phillips said before his team’s second practice on the field this season last Friday. “They started that on their own. I had plans to move them in that direction.”
The poor weather this spring has really been a hinderance for such a young team with a new coaching staff. There has been some workouts in the gym, but the team’s first two practices on the actual field happened less than a week before the season opens this week.
“With so many younger girls we are doing a lot on fundamentals,” Phillips pointed out. “We go from one end of the spectrum to the other in terms of talent.”
Phillips doesn’t lose any sleep over his pitching and catching. Szpila has already signed to play at Campbellsville University while Dukes will play at John A Logan College.
“She has picked up some speed,” Phillips said of Szpila’s pitching. “Her location is still a work in progress. It’s already better than last year. That will lead to more strike-outs. Her location will help us.”
Szpila played basketball as a junior and then played softball. This year, she dropped basketball to concentrate on softball. Dukes played on the volleyball team in the fall, but also was free to work on her softball over the winter.
Szpila throws from the left side while her back-up, sophomore Belle Leonard, is a right-hander. Leonard will be starting at first base and Phillips can see situations where he might switch Leonard and Szpila for a hitter or two just to give the batters something different to look at.
Szpila and Leonard are the only pitchers at the varsity level at this point, but Phillips does see some promise in some of the younger players to get in the circle as they progress.
Dukes already has a season under her belt calling games from behind the plate.
“She will stall call all the game,” Phillips said. “She has worked on that in the off-season. She has worked with ‘Mouse’ (Szpila’s nickname) and that improved location will free her up to what she can call.”
Leonard returns to play first base and the Lady Cougars also return the other starter on the right side of the infield with eighth-grader Brooklyn Benefield at second base. Benefield will also be Dukes’ back-up this season.
Phillips is also confident in the ability of his fifth returning starter, sophomore Sarah Noble. There will be a new position for Noble as she moves from centerfield to shortstop.
“She is just finding her comfort zone,” Phillips said of the position switch for Noble who will also bat at the top of the line-up. “I have to slow her down a little bit or she’ll be catching pop flies in front of the second baseman. She still thinks she is in centerfield.”
The other four positions are still up in the air and probably have given Phillips some sleepless nights. The third base spot and the three outfield slots will be manned by players with no varsity experience.
At third base, Phillips was still looking for one of three players to step up and take the spot. That group includes senior Jessie Weiss, sophomore MaKayla Carli and junior McKayla Robinson.
In the outfield, sophomore Kimberly Berthiaume will get the first shot in left field while junior McKenzie Pruitt will patrol in centerfield. In right field, Robinson or Weiss could be out there if they are not playing at third base.
“We do have a long way to go with the outfield,” Phillips admitted. “But, they want to be out there and they are working hard to keep their spots. They have people on the JV on their heels. I’m trying to impress on them that I I won’t have any qualms to make a change.”
With Leonard, Szpila and Dukes batting in the middle of the line-up, the Lady Cougars have the ability to play long-ball. Szpila set a state record last season when she hit five home runs in five straight plate appearances including three in one game.
Still, Phillips realizes that they will score more with runners on base in front of that power line-up.
“It’s hard not to play big ball, but we have to set the table for them,” the coach noted.
Phillips’ coaching staff includes Rob Johnson and Rachel Basil as the paid assistants. The program also has volunteer assistant coaches in Aaron Basil and Audra Owens.
Bullitt Central posted a 20-8 record last spring, but lost the last two games of the season, first in the district final to Southern (2-1) and then losing in the Sixth Region Tournament to Butler (8-0). The program has played in the Sixth Region Tournament each of the past three years, but as the district runner-up each time.
Phillips thinks his team will need to improve throughout the season to pass Southern and North Bullitt.
Bullitt Central had two games scheduled for this week before heading to Brandenburg on Friday and Saturday for a tournament. The Lady Cougars have just one home game until after spring break. That one home contest is March 24 against Elizabethtown.