After a tough couple of years, Lenoir City High School’s softball team is on a mission to put the program back on the map.
The Lady Panthers struggled in 2022, but Matt Helton, LCHS head softball coach, said the offseason has been a breath of fresh air as players came in refocused and motivated for a better season.
“We set some pretty high goals going into the offseason, going into the weight room, conditioning,” he said. “We set some pretty high goals and we met and surpassed all of those. … So this is a good team. They’re definitely setting goals and going after them, so I’m excited.”
Players returned to practice Feb. 13 to find an unusual photo pinned to the dugout. With the phrase “They said we sucked” written above a team picture, referencing a comment overheard from a district opponent in 2022, Helton said the coaching staff hoped to ignite a fire in the team.
“Just a little old school motivation,” Helton said. “Lenoir City softball’s always carried that we’re the lower teams, everybody sort of looks down, and this year we want to change their minds. We want them to see that’s not us anymore, that’s the old Lenoir City and we got something different.”
Senior McKenzie Wilhite said knowing people were saying those kind of things certainly makes players want to prove them wrong. Seniors Helen Harper and Emma Brooks both said they want to use it as motivation when they face that team this year.
Another key component to the offseason and preseason has been the team’s determination to outwork everyone. Players wear shirts with those words emblazoned on the back during warmups.
Senior Emma Casteel said that mindset is already beginning to pay off.
“I think we’re finally rebuilding our softball program to where it hasn’t been in years,” she said.
Lenoir City notably struggled with individual errors last season, so players said that was one of the main areas of focus coming into the preseason.
Improving team culture is also a priority, and the seniors said the group has become more of a tight, family unit heading into the new season.
The team will also be helped by a wave of new players, with underclassmen making up about half of the roster. Three key seniors graduated in the spring, but Helton said he was excited for a lot of the freshmen coming in to make their marks.
One freshman, Kymbal Williams, is set to become the team’s starting pitcher after the Lady Panthers went through the 2022 season without a specialist. Though still light on options for the role, a second pitcher will become eligible just in time for postseason following a transfer to the school.
“We have a real pitcher, big change from last year,” Helton said. “Kymbal’s going to carry the load this year, and I think she can do it. Is she going to have moments where she doesn’t want to do it? Maybe, but I think with her mentality and her mental toughness, she’s going to be OK carrying that load.”
Helton said with the improvement he’s seen from returning players and the quality of a couple of newcomers, he believes the team can turn its fortunes around. Performances have been positive in preseason scrimmages, and the Lady Panthers are eager to get going.
“We just want to compete in our district,” Helton said. “We want to be toward the top. We don’t want to be at the bottom, having to play a play-in game to get into the district tournament. We want to be up there either hosting or at least in that top two and three. So that’s our goal this year, to compete in our district and obviously win games. I think we can do that.”
Harper said after recent turnarounds by LCHS teams in numerous other sports, players hoped to be the next to do the same and bring excitement back to the softball program.
“We want people to come out and support us and it be like a big thing,” she said. “As our basketball teams have gotten better, the community has come out with them and I think we all want the same thing for this sport, too.”
Lenoir City began the season Monday with a narrow loss against Copper Basin High School. The Lady Panthers are back in action at 5:30 p.m. today at Greenback School before heading to Fulton High School at 6 p.m. Friday for the first district matchup.