VERDIGRIS — Brian Keith has coached Lady Cardinals softball for more than a decade, but 2020 might be his biggest challenge yet.
Spoiler alert: It involves delays caused by the COVID-19 coronavirus pandemic.
Verdigris lost six of 10 starters from last year’s 23-10 squad, including All-State talent Megan Turner. Jackie Zaferes, Abigail Teal, Haley Schoeling, Faith Weisenbach and Jaysan Gibson are also gone.
Keith must now pick up the pieces with limited time to prepare for the season that begins at 5 p.m. Monday against Jay. After the cancellation of summer league in May, softball practice for all Oklahoma Secondary School Activities Association members began Wednesday, July 15.
“Right now we’re very young,” said Keith, who is entering his 13th season at the helm. “It’s just unfortunate we didn’t get to have June to get other players involved. Right now, it’s going to be a challenge. It’s fortunate and unfortunate we’re playing Monday. I need more time, but we’re going to have to grow up quickly. We’ve had about three weeks of practice, and that is it. I’ve got so many new faces, and I have three move-ins that are all freshmen, and I’ve got three freshmen who are going to start for me.
“I need more time, but unfortunately we don’t have that.”
Of course, practice time and youth aren’t the only problems hindering the Lady Cardinals.
As if COVID-19 concerns weren’t enough, Verdigris is also dealing with injuries to some key players. One of those unlucky athletes is Daeya Moses.
Moses, a junior, injured her left ankle during her last competitive summer league game 2 ½ weeks ago and has just recently returned to the diamond.
“She just started practicing Wednesday,” Keith said. “But she could play shortstop or third for us; it depends on who’s in the circle. Right now she’s a little bit gimpy, but hopefully we can have her ready by Monday and have her full-go and ready to go.
“She’s by far our best player, and she’s the one who is going to make us go.”
The starting first baseman Katelyn Horton (knee) and pitcher Parker Allee (back) suffered injuries as well during bullpen sessions.
It has been a nonstop rollercoaster since practices began, and though the regular season hasn’t started yet, things seem to already be working against Verdigris.
“We’ve been battling injuries the past three weeks,” Keith said. “It’s been kind of a nightmare with all the injuries and new faces and not enough time with them. We’re going to get after it Monday, and we’re just going to have to grow as we go and as we play. We don’t have any practice time left; it’s time to start our games and get into district play.”
The Lady Cardinals’ District 4A-6 slate begins only four games into the season, starting with perennial power Hilldale on Monday, Aug. 17.
According to Keith, the Lady Hornets return most of their starters from a squad that advanced to the Class 4A semifinals and finished with a 31-4 record in 2019, going 2-0 against Verdigris along the way.
The Lady Cardinals placed second in the district last year, but landing that high again could be a difficult task for this young team.
Regardless, Keith will have his players ready to compete. Verdigris' success over the years under his tutelage was no accident.
“Out of the district, I think we’re the team that lost the most,” Keith said. “We’re going to have to grow up quickly and hopefully give ourselves a chance to compete. Our expectations aren’t going to change because we’ve been so good for so long, and I don’t like to use the term ‘rebuild’. We need to reload and get going and hopefully play to what we’ve done in the past. It’s going to be a challenge because we are young.
“My gosh, it’s the youngest team I’ve ever had.”
Brylee Ray will be another key to Verdigris’ success in 2020.
The senior took over pitching duties about midway through the season, notching a 12-8 record. Her growth in the circle will be pivotal early as Keith breaks in some more inexperienced arms.
Although Ray will likely get a bulk of the pitches, expect a three-pitcher rotation that allows her to keep her arm fresh throughout the year.
“I’ve got three of them right now, so we’re just going to committee this thing,” Keith said. “Brylee Ray is a great kid, and she’s one of my two seniors. She’s going to get out there and compete and do the best for us. She’s gotta pitch at a high level, and she’s capable of doing it for us, but we’re going to need those other two to help us out, too. We just don’t have that dominant arm in the circle. They’re all just hopefully going to be efficient in the strike zone and give us a chance, but we’re not going to get a lot of strikeouts.
“They keep getting better every day, so we’re going to use all three of them and try to find a way.”