Evie Lemery of Verdigris winds up a pitch during the Class 4A regional tournament last season. Only a sophomore, Lemery will play a key role in the Lady Cardinals’ road to another state tournament appearance.

VERDIGRIS – Even with several new starters, 2022 is more of a reload than a rebuild for Verdigris softball.

However, that doesn’t mean there aren’t things to be resolved before next week’s season opener. Gone are the days of .400 hitters Daeya Moses and Bailey Cravens, and soon-to-be three-year starting centerfielder Rebecca Manahl is out for the season after suffering a labrum tear in one of her shoulders during the offseason.

Those athletes will be difficult to replace, regardless of the incoming talent. Luckily the Lady Cardinals have an experienced coach in Brian Keith who has seen it all during his 33-year career.

“Right now we're just trying to piece this thing together and figure ourselves out,” Keith said. “It’s been a pretty competitive last couple of weeks in practice. It's a new team, but we still got Evie (Lemery) in the circle. She had 37 wins last year. We’ve got a little bit of a different identity this year than what we've had, so we’ve got about a week of scrimmages this week to figure ourselves out and kind of see where we're at.

“We just gotta kind of play this one day at a time.”

Key Question: Can Verdigris fill holes on offense, defense

One of the biggest challenges the Lady Cardinals face, Keith says, is the left side of the defense.

He has moved some players around while trying different variations over the past two weeks to see what gives his team the best chance to be good defensively. As of earlier this week, there remain kinks to work out.

In a scrimmage Monday against Quapaw, Verdigris experienced a few breakdowns defensively that ultimately resulted in runs for the Lady Wildcats. It managed to overcome those mistakes, though, thanks to a monster fifth inning that saw the Lady Cardinals tally 15 runs on the way to a 19-4 victory.

Of course, the offense isn’t without its faults.

Keith said the batting lineup lost some speed that helped the team score 366 runs through 38 games in 2021 (9.6 runs per game). But where they lack in one area, they excel in another.

“That is a little bit different this year than what I've seen in the last couple of years, which is we’ve had some girls who can run a little bit,” Keith said. “But now we got girls who are probably going to produce more with the barrel and play more gap-to-gap offensively. It's just kind of a new look for us, but I still think as time goes on, I think we're gonna figure it out and hopefully mesh and jell and hopefully have a successful year.

“We had two weeks to prepare for the season. That's kind of difficult because baseball's a little bit different — you get four or five months. The two weeks have been a little bit strenuous for all of us, just trying to figure ourselves out. It's kind of a process right now. So, as time goes, we'll just start to get 1% better every day. That's our goal right now.”

Key Returner: Evie Lemery, pitcher

The Lady Cardinals will go as the sophomore right-hander goes. She proved her reliability time and time again last season with 37 wins on her resume, and she will be depended on again in 2022.

If Lemery pitches like she did last year, Verdigris will have a chance in every game. That means the state tournament is an attainable goal for this group.

“Evie is still Evie. She’s just got a resolve about herself, and she’s one of the hardest-working kids I've ever been around in 33 years,” Keith said. “She works on her craft daily, and she’s an extremely good kid. I think that’s what separates her from a lot of players. She just spends a lot of time at it. I think the more time she spends at it, the better and better she gets every day. She is a pretty special kid just because of her work ethic.

“Expect a lot out of her, but we got to get the other eight behind her, and if we do, we have a chance to hopefully make a run to the state tournament again.”

Key Game: Aug. 8 vs. Stigler

Verdigris has outscored opponents 46-14 in season openers since 2017, but there will be no cupcakes to open the season this time around.

Stigler, a fellow 2021 Class 4A state qualifier, awaits in the Pryor Festival on Monday and should prove to be a good early measuring stick for the Lady Cardinals. The Lady Panthers finished 25-11 last season, falling in the state quarterfinals just like Verdigris.

“They got everybody back,” Keith said. “It'll be a tough task for us. They’ve got a good one in the circle. She's a senior this year and is a four-year starter for him, so we'll find out right off the bat (how good we are).”

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