The Knights (16-5) took a trip to regionals, navigating through an ultra competitive Conference 3 last season on a dramatic home run by First Team All-Conference 3 honoree and catcher Hunter Vay to sink the Rapids of James River. While they fell to Forest Park in 6A South regionals, they’ll be looking to push back to that point despite a younger roster and relatively inexperienced pitching staff.
Nathan Eaton, last year’s staff ace and Tommy Barron, the team’s number two pitcher have moved on the next level at VMI and Randolph-Macon respectively. Corey Johnston is also a Keydet and Cody Boydstun is at Longwood. All four of these athletes were valuable arms for Thomas Dale last year. Eaton and Johnson were among the top offensive performers on the club as well.
While a lot of experience departed, Thomas Dale has reason to be excited about pitchers Elliott Manley (Bridgewater) and Adam Brooks, two hurlers that may share the starting pitching duties. Both were 2-0 last year in their time on the bump and when not pitching, both will play on the left side of the infield at either third base or shortstop.
There will be several new starters on the diamond for the Knights. Overall, coach Chris Marshall said his team has solid speed and should be above average defensively, but in what seems to be a growing trend in baseball nationally, offense is a bit more difficult to find in bunches.
A scrappy bunch of hitters will be led by junior outfielder Evan Lester, and a pair of sophomores in Drew Camp and Tyler Bailey that will man first base and shortstop respectively.
“We’ll need to change our approach this year and play a little more small ball,” said Marshall. “I’m excited about our new guys.”
The ladies of the Thomas Dale diamond started hot and cooled last year, but return nearly every player that contributed on a regular basis in 2015. The loss of team leader and pitcher Jordan Starke will sting a bit, but two pitchers, including an exciting freshman in Leigha Hill will look to fill that void.
The Knights return their starting outfield- Lauryn King, Katie Merhout, and Courtney Robinette. They also return their catcher, Rayana Hill and their entire infield in Sarah Ridgeway, Abby Nyquist, Grace DiMarino and Taylor Byrd. Many members of this group have played together on varsity since their freshman seasons, so the time is now.
Dennis Jones takes over the helm as softball coach. Jones has previous head coaching experience and replaces Mike Zuk after a successful tenure over the past couple of years. Having coached Lacey Waldrop, a former National Softball Player of the Year and pitcher for Florida State, he is very excited about Leigha Hill who already has two division one offers from Longwood and Campbell despite being a freshman.
“Leigha is the real deal,” Jones said.
Leigha will step right in as the team’s primary pitcher and will be relieved by Brenna Andrews who figures to get spot starts as well. A skilled hitter, when not inside the circle, Hill will play shortstop.
There will be some new names to look for, beginning with a speedy junior, Ariana Jordan. Freshman Maddie Rice brings the potential for another great bat and glove, and sophomore Brooke Dudley swings the stick in an above average manner. By all accounts, Thomas Dale appears to be loaded in 2016.
“This year’s team is one of, if not the best display of talent and versatility that I’ve ever seen at one time at Thomas Dale,” Jones said. “All of the kids can play various positions an eight or nine returners have been together since they were freshmen.”
It would appear it is a Conference 3 championship, a trip to regionals and beyond for Thomas Dale, but they will be challenged by a talented James River team that eliminated them last season, and a Cosby squad that can never be counted out. The addition of Clover Hill and Manchester gives the Knights an absolutely stacked conference slate with no real breaks day in and day out.