MIDLOTHIAN — At least two things can be learned from attending an early season Midlothian Heritage softball practice: Chickens are genetically related to the Velociraptor and year-two of the Jaguar softball program will not look like the first.

Second-year Midlothian Heritage head coach Waylon Whitney summed up his outlook for the upcoming season in one word — excited. From familiarity with the playing styles, strengths and weaknesses of the Jaguars to the girls and their confidence in each other, Whitney said the first few weeks have already been a polar opposite of last season.

“I think the girls know the expectation. I think they know our policy about lifting during the athletic period and then we come out to softball and I think they know each other better now,” Whitney explained. “Last year we had a lot of girls who had never played together — ninth graders were playing on the varsity and a couple of girls from Midlothian [High] who came over. It was all very brand new to them and it was kind of like the first day of school. Last year it would have been easy for them to just break, but they didn’t and they kept working.”

As assistant coach Lindsay Fallen led the girls onto the field before an afternoon practice, Whitney explained that the team’s ability to continue working during a rough 5-16 season in 2016 excellently depicted “the Jaguar way.”

“Just today in the weight room, Makenna [Anderson], she’s a sophomore, started telling a freshman ‘Hey we do it this way, not that way’ or ‘no, we use a smaller band, not a big band.’ She was just teaching and that is what we want,” Whitney explained. “We want them to take leadership and be leaders. The biggest thing all programs in this school have and are striving to form is leadership because we are new. We don’t have any seniors in this program.

“[…] We are all on a level playing field, so lets teach each other even if some have been playing outside of school and some haven’t. It is not a ‘Hey, you do this,’ it’s a ‘Hey, this is the way we do it here. This is the Jaguar way.’”

One thing that will not change from last season is the game-in-and-game-out grind of the district schedule. Following the realignment, Alvarado, Godley and Stephenville, along with Venus, Life Waxahachie and Heritage, comprise a newly stacked District 8-4A this season.

Alvarado, who finished 9-2 last season’s in District 7-4A to finish as the No. 2 seed, lost 2-0 to Stephenville in a 4A Region 1 Area Championship before the Honeybees fell to Kennedale 2-0 in a Regional Quarterfinal. Godley, who finished 10-1 in District 7-4A in 2016, defeated Castleberry in the opening round of postseason play and then fell to Brownwood, 2-1, in round two. The Lady Lions went on to lose in the 4A State Championship to La Grange, 1-0.

However, Whitney said his girls are not ones to back down from the task at hand, much like when they won a 22-21 marathon against Venus last season. Jaguar fans will recall that it was Jordan Freas, the same pitcher and corner infielder who did not strikeout once in 2016, who slugged the game-winning home run.

With returners like Freas, Anderson, Rachel Gray, Rachel Richard, and Layne Mckay in the infield, along with Alexa Perez, Hailey Hess, Danielle Seimears and Lexi Daniels in the outfield, the Jaguars have plenty of experience on which to hang their hats. In addition to the returning players, the Jaguars will also look for contributions from Gracie Lenzer, a transfer from Waxahachie, and freshmen Gracie Larkin and Jessica Hershey.

“There are also a few girls coming from basketball that will help fill out the rosters, but we feel good about where we are at as a team. We have talked to the kids about how the overall atmosphere is better than last year, and coach Fallen and I attribute that to the competition,” Whitney said. “We have girls competing for positions, where last year, unfortunately, there wasn’t that. We had to fill two teams and we had 26 tryout so 26 made it.”

In fact, through the first few practices, Whitney said he was pleasantly surprised by the strides made by two returners.

“Layne is actually coming from cheerleading and we have a couple cheerleaders playing for us on the varsity and JV. Her athleticism has always been there but she has been practicing outside of school with personal lessons and it showed,” he explained. "Last year, Hess broke her foot, and it took her a while to get going, but this year she is healthy on day one. She has a good arm and a good glove in the outfield.”

Heading into the small sampling of upcoming scrimmages, Whitney explained that he expects to see improved play at the plate and in the circle, as last year the lineup was a revolving door outside of three or four Jaguars.

“Our focus this year is more on offense and more on pitching and developing pitching. You can never have enough pitching. This year is going to be a little different. We know we have two girls who can pitch and we have some hitters, as well. I think we are going to see a big difference.

“[...] Jordan [Freas] brings a toughness [to the circle]. She’s not naturally a pitcher, she was our first baseman, but we had to have a pitcher and she stepped up. Gracie [Lenzer] is good, too. So we are going to see but we have been impressed by her first few rounds of bullpen sessions. The scrimmages will determine what we need to work on and we will go from there. We are excited to have depth and that is something we didn’t have last year.”

However, before the dust of the first slide into the plate settles, Whitney said he is excited and not just for the opportunity to dish out fun facts on dinosaurs or fix the throwing mechanics of a freshman outfielder. He explained that he is excited to watch a second-year team grow into a winning softball program.

“I’m excited. It’s going to be better. We have some goals and we have talked to them about those goals and talked to them about hitting their own goals,” Whitney said. “Last year we didn’t win our first game until 10 or 11 games into the season and that was in our last tournament. This year we just want to hit manageable goals and see that there is big improvement. With the atmosphere around here right now, it’s going to happen.”

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Travis M. Smith, @Travis5mith

(469) 517-1470