Bluffton High School and Thomas Heyward Academy were the cream of the area's softball crop last season.
The Bobcats handed the Rebels a season-opening loss, 4-3, behind the bat of Ohio University-bound infielder Alexia Cortez.
Thomas Heyward wouldn't suffer another defeat until the SCISAA Class 2-A championship series, when it was swept 2-0 by Marlboro Academy. Along the way were two wins over the Bobcats -- a 1-0 gem by Rebels ace Ashlie Layman that she won with a solo home run and a 12-11, nine-inning see-saw of a game won by Layman with a walk-off three-run double.
Those were Bluffton's only losses until the Class 3-A playoffs.
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As the teams prepare to meet tonight in Bluffton, Cortez is gone, Layman is pitching for USC Beaufort and the teams are in much different places.
Bluffton is playing its first season in 4-A, and coach Bill Ball says the change in classification is not really a factor.
"The girls have already played several 4-A teams in preseason games and scrimmages, and they don't even know the difference," he said.
Ball said the Bobcats have already faced Region 8-AAAA rival Summerville and went "toe-to-toe" with them in a 2-0 loss. Bluffton also split a pair of preseason games with county and region rival Beaufort High, which Ball said has one of its better teams in recent years.
Even with the loss of Cortez, Bluffton is strong up the middle with the return of ace Courtney Smith (17-4 in 2012) and catcher Whitney Morrell (.397, 27 RBIs).
And Ball said the Bobcats may have actually gained a little team speed with the addition of a few younger players.
"Realistically, this team could be a strong playoff team, even in 4-A," Ball said.
It seems Thomas Heyward lost as much as Bluffton brought back.
Only two starters remain from the Rebels' 28-3 team of a year ago. Taylor Ernestine, who hit .424 a year ago, will play everywhere, including pitcher and catcher, while fellow senior Brielle Jungblut brings her near-.400 average and speed on the bases back to the leadoff spot.
"We're very young. So young that every day is an adventure," Rebels coach Bob Layman said. "But we've played a game and we're pleased with where we're at with our pitching."
Despite the Rebels' youth -- there are no upperclassmen starting on the infield, and the starting catcher will be an eighth-grader -- Layman said his squad is full of hard-working girls who are eager to learn and want badly to return to the SCISAA finals.
"We're going to be competitive," Layman said. "How competitive? It depends on how we react to the pressure. We'll battle. We've got big hearts."
Layman said the lack of experience is hands down the biggest obstacle facing the Rebels. But despite their youth, Ball is quick to be cautious.
"It's not the same Thomas Heyward, obviously," Ball said. "But they've got a great coach, and their kids love playing for him. I don't think it's a gimme, by any means."
2013 HIGH SCHOOL SOFTBALL PREVIEW
Coach: Richard Jarrett, 1st year
Assistant coaches: Stephanie Weltz, Daniel Tibbals, William Kinsey
Notable losses from 2012: P Macala Barnard, graduation
Top returning players: CF Kelsey Poole, sr.; P Victoria Hill, soph.; P Olivia Nolan, soph.; C Emily Rose Madlinger, fr.; SS/3B Autumn Gravel, jr.; SS Augusta Schubert, sr.; LF Tina Kwok, sr.
Key newcomers: C Devin Mitchell, sr.; 2B Emily Wilson, fr.
Coach's outlook for 2013: "We are a young team with a great attitude and a lot of team spirit. We are excited about the opportunity to be very competitive in a new region. Our infield looks to be very strong."
Coach: Doug Plank, 2nd year (coached in 2009)
2012 record: 8-12
Assistant coaches: Jim Cook, Scott Rast
Notable losses from 2012: none
Top returning players: OF Maddy Berry, jr., good power; leadoff hitter Michelle Brown, jr., excellent speed, runs scored leader; Megan Cieplowski, jr., excellent glove, 300 BA; Jenny Mullins, jr.; Jessica Bennett, jr.; Sidney Bourg, fr.; Molly Clark, jr.
Key newcomers: C Chelsea Welty, soph., 1st-team all-state transfer from Latta; OF Pressley Thomas, sr., home-schooled, veteran travel ball player with Beaufort Bombers; 3B/P Mari Cook, soph., lettered as 8th-grader, did not play last year, No. 3 hitter, premier hitter in league; OF/C Natallie Moore, Jr., lettered as 8th- and 9th-grader, did not play last year, left-handed power with good speed and arm.
Strengths: Good hitting. Good speed at top of order. Good 3-4 power in Cook and Welty. Experienced pitching in veteran Jenny Mullins. Majority of team have played together on varsity and travel teams.
Weaknesses: Pitching depth, Mullins will carry a heavy load.
Burning question: This team has the capability to contend for a region title, and go far in playoff, already demonstrated by second place in 24-team Charleston preseason tournament. Can they focus? Will they gel under new coaching?
Coach's outlook for 2013: "The Eagles should make the playoffs and are capable of going deep into championship rounds."
Coach: Bill Ball, 7th season
Overall record: 93-38 (.748)
2012 record and playoff results: 18-4, lost in 1st round of Class 3-A playoffs
Assistant coaches: Terry Smith, George Hudson, Gary Thomas
Notable losses from 2012: Chelsea Funk, Alexia Cortez
Top returning players: P Courtney Smith (17-4, 189 Ks), C Whitney Morrell (.397 avg., .794 slg., 27 RBIs), CF Morganne Parker (.410 avg.), 3B Kim Kerby (.354 avg., .646 slg.)
Key newcomers: OF Jordyn Parker (8th, McCracken), 2B Lilli Otten (9th, McCracken)
Strengths: Experience, speed, Pitching
Burning question: Can we bring our A-game for an entire season?
Coach's outlook for 2013: "Should have a solid first season in 4-A. We will find out quickly how badly these young ladies want to prove they can handle the jump. For several years we have played most out-of-region games against 4-A competition, so this will be more of a mental challenge for my players."
Hilton Head Island
Coach: Sarah Beachkofsky-Moore, 5th year
Overall record: 31-42
2012 record and playoff results: 11-7, 5-5 region, 1-2 playoffs
Assistant coaches: Willie Moore
Notable losses from 2012: Tori Motchan (graduation), Haley Lewis (graduation)
Top returning players: INF Arianna Tolerton, OF Macy Moore, P Whitney Haley, C Aileen Moore
Key newcomers: P/INF Caylee Osborne, sr., transfer
Strengths: A majority of the squad are returning varsity players; All-Region players Whitney Halley and Aileen Moore are back on the mound and behind the plate, respectively.
Weaknesses: A lack of field time due to the weather; needing to work on the small things so that the big things go away.
Coach's outlook for 2013: "The core of our team is returning, and if we can keep focus, I think this group of talented athletes can compete with anyone on our schedule."
Coach: Bea Anderson, 1st year (two previous seasons at Hardeeville before consolidation)
Overall record: Went to 2nd round of playoffs in 2011, 3rd round in 2012.
Top returning players: Almost entire Hardeeville squad that reached the third round of the playoffs, in addition to Ridgeland players
Strengths: Strong on defense.
Weaknesses: Pitching is mediocre.
Coach's outlook for 2013: "I think we'll have a pretty good squad. It's better competition now, since we're in 2-A. I told the girls it'll be tougher, but I think we'll be pretty good."
Thomas Heyward Academy
Coach: Bob Layman, 4th year
Overall record: 76-12, one state championship and two runner-up finishes
2012 record and playoff results: 28-, 6-0 region, 6-2 in playoffs, lost in state championship series
Assistant coaches: Pat Ernestine, Lawton Moser, Kayla Canavan
Notable losses from 2012: All but two starters are gone -- C Andrea Daring (USC Aiken), P Ashlie Layman (USC Beaufort), CF Brianna Kelnhofer (Limestone), Kayla Canavan (graduation, now coaching), Caitlyn Cooler (graduation), Laynee Brian (injury)
Top returning players: Taylor Ernestine, who hit .424 a year ago, will play everywhere, including pitcher and catcher, while fellow senior Brielle Jungblut brings here near-.400 average and speed on the bases back to the leadoff spot.
Key newcomers: Six players move up to varsity from JV, and Sydney Glassberg is back after missing much of last season to injury. Newcomer Selice Daley should pull most of the pitching duties in her first year. She has played travel ball for several years.
Strengths: Loaded with girls that really want to play and learn the game. This group is young but up to the challenge. Not a lot of quit in this bunch.
Weaknesses: Game experience. We're very young -- two 8th-graders and five freshmen. It may not be a weakness.
Burning question: How quickly will they mesh and can big shoes be filled?
Coach's outlook for 2013: "Positive! I expect to be competing for the state championship. We'll be getting better every day."
Coach: Charlie Simmons, 1st year
Overall record: n/a
2012 record: n/a
Assistant coaches: Shirrell Gardner, Quan Pollock, Tomiko Parker
Notable losses from 2012: N/A
Top returning players: SS/C/P Kenyada Moultrie, Sr.; OF/1B S'Nitra Mack, Sr.; 3B/P/C Cassey Lewis, sr.; P/1B Olivia Wakler, soph.
Key newcomers: C/SS Jessica Shipley, 8th; 2B/P/SS/C Ciera Courtney, 8th; 3B/1B/DH Tanasia Campbell, 7th
Strengths: Our team's strength is in our youth who are eager to learn. The team has trusted my completely new system for a winning season and a successful program. Being the school's third coach in as many years of existence will be a big hill to climb, but I have seen progress within. Building from scratch and from the ground up will be tough, but we have a very young team and with several strong senior captains. The speedy and versatile Kenyada Moultrie, Cassey Lewis, and the power swinging S'Nitra Mack from the left side will provide the leadership and productivity needed to push us through this season.
Weaknesses: Experience -- more than 65 percent of the JV and varsity teams are underclassmen, ranging from 7th to 10th grade.
Burning question: Can or will the team believe in the new system?
Coach's outlook for 2013: "We'll let teams know that we are indeed contenders. Also, we'll build the frame work for the team's new look while competing for the region title."