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Nelson County had its struggles at times last year, and if there was ever a season when the Cardinals’ daunting streak of district championships was at risk of coming to an end, it was 2011.
The Cardinals dropped their first seven games and were limping along at 3-16 as April turned to May. But the ship got righted just in time as Nelson County went 7-3 during May before a season-ending 6-1 loss to North Hardin in the 5th Region tournament. Included in those seven wins in May was a 19th District championship win over Washington County, extending the program’s generations-long string of district crowns to 21.
Five seniors departed from that club, leaving behind a young but skilled club that has benefited tremendously from changes in Kentucky High School Athletic Association by-laws permitting more of a year-round practice schedule. An unseasonably warm winter has also helped, giving coaches Chris Mattingly and John Rogers lots of time to work with the 2012 team.
“It has really helped — we have been able to be outside,” Mattingly said. Plus, “being as the high school rules changed this year, we can pretty much instruct all season, voluntarily, and we’ve had a bunch of girls come out. … We’ve been working pretty much non-stop since September.”
The players have welcomed the warm winter.
“I think it helped us a lot to get ready for the season and we’re more prepared now,” Ashley Gamlin said.
Mattingly said the turnouts for voluntary practices have been as many as 20 players per day, and the Cardinals go into 2012 with 28 on the roster, and many figure to contribute in one form or another.
“It’s going to be hard” to replace the offense from last season, Mattingly said, “We lost a bunch of seniors the past two years, and a lot of good bats. But the extra practice has really helped. We’re going to have a lot of girls come on really strong and hit the ball this year.”
Also helping is the Cardinals’ fieldhouse and indoor practice facility, which is finally taking shape. The NCHS vocational classes built new lockers for the team, and with a roof over their head, practice can go on, rain or shine.
“They’re beautiful,” Mattingly said. “We’re really trying to take care of these girls.”
Gamlin, the team’s center fielder, and second baseman Rachel Proctor, the Cardinals’ only seniors, were thrilled about the team’s new digs.
“They’re awesome — we don’t have to worry about rain or snow or anything now — we’re all enclosed,” Proctor said.
“We can always have practice,” Gamlin said.
“We can get a lot of hitting practice now,” Proctor said.
Mattingly said that figures to be a strong suit, as there is depth at several positions, and versatility on the bench to give the team lots of options when it comes to situational hitting.
Gamlin, who moves over from right field this season, is the team’s top returning hitter after last year’s .426 campaign, just one point shy of the team’s top batting average.
“Ashley Gamlin’s going to be a monster, whether she’s slap-hitting, bunting, whatever she does,” Mattingly said.
She’ll anchor the No. 2 hole in the lineup and absorb a lot of the leadership duties.
“I just make sure everybody’s working hard and I work hard myself,” she said. “I just try to be a leader.”
Freshman Hallie Mattingly patrols left field and leads off, while sophomore Katrina Boone is in right and hits cleanup.
“We’ve got two speedsters on the corners,” Mattingly said.
Proctor handles second base and provides speed at the back end of the lineup
Freshman Morgan Robinson starts at first, but the Cardinals will also give sophomore Jessica Benbow some time there as well. Sophomore Savannah Ballard and junior Lindsey Thompson — who hit .308 in mostly a pinch-hitting role last year — will time-share at third base.
Junior Emily Feltner and sophomore Alex Newton will alternate at pitcher and shortstop.
Newton got the bulk of the innings last year, but Feltner was solid during her relief stints, including coming on in relief of an injured Newton to toss five scoreless innings in the region against North Hardin.
“Emily has worked hard all summer, all fall, all winter,” Mattingly said.
Newton, who hit a solid .298 last year, struggled in the circle toward the end of last season as the innings piled up on a gimpy elbow, but is back and healthy.
“She throws as hard as probably anybody in the region,” Mattingly said. “Had a little bit of an elbow problem at the end of last year, but she’s looking really good this spring.”
Junior Ashley Seaman takes over behind the plate.
Proctor said the Cardinals have developed a good synergy with the extra time practicing.
“I think, looking at last year, our team will get along better, because we need to,” Proctor said. “And, we have a fresh new team this year, and I think that’s going to help out a lot.”
It hasn’t been lost on Mattingly, either.
“They’re gelling really well,” he said. “They’re working hard with each other and for each other. If one of them starts and the other’s on the bench, they’re cheering just as hard.”
Mattingly said the competition all around the diamond can only help the team.
“We’ve got so many good bats right now,” Mattingly said. “Everybody on the bench in varsity’s probably going to get a chance to show their stuff.”
For Mattingly and Rogers, it’s kind of a flip-flop in previous roles. Mattingly served as the assistant in the past, but when the Nelson County Schools administration decided to relieve Rogers of his head coaching duties and asked Mattingly to take over, Mattingly demanded Rogers remain as assistant.
Mattingly said he’s happy to handle the paperwork, and that on the field Rogers is still calling the shots.
“I think he’s the best coach in the state,” he said.