CORRECTION: This version reflects the correct age division of Big League Softball, which is organized by Little League International, and correct location of the regional tournament as West Monroe, La.
Marty Rhodes has taken several teams to regional softball tournaments during his years as a coach. But the Pine Bluff American-Eastern manager has yet to manage to advance past that level to the Big League Softball World Series.
He is hoping that this year’s squad will break that trend and join the ranks of the PBAE team that played in the 2007 series, won by Morristown, Tenn.
“I coach my youngest daughter in a tournament team and they play all over the place,” Rhodes said. “We have about three weeks to put these girls together and sometimes it doesn’t work. I have been with teams that we have taken down there that didn’t gel.”
The squad went through last-minute preparations Wednesday evening with its final practice before departing today for West Monroe, La. Rhodes said he expects the team to compete well after seeing what he had to work with.
“This comes out of four teams out of our league,” Rhodes said. “This is what we believe is the best 11 out of the 15-18 year old age group. I have been down there with them four times. We have finished second twice but have never won it.”
Rhodes cited pitching as a major strength of the squad.
“I think this is the best team I have ever coached because of pitching,” Rhodes said. “I have three or four sure pitchers on the team. I think that’s our strength.”
One of those pitchers is his daughter, Madeleine Rhodes. Mallory and Shelby McWhorter will also see time on the mound with Mallory expected to pull the bulk of the innings.
“Pitching is key in softball,” Rhodes said. “And I think we can hit with their pitchers. We know we are going to see some good bats but we feel like we have the arms to hang in there with them.”
Rhodes said the girls have shown potential at the plate as well in the three short weeks of preparation with shortstop Jordan Arnold being the spark at the top of the lineup.
“She is a contact hitter but she hits the ball hard,” he said. “She is dangerous at the plate. She hits the ball as hard as anyone I’ve ever seen to be such a good contact hitter.”
Pine Bluff graduate Taylor Wilkes will hold down the hot spot at third base and bat in the two hole. “Cake”, as she is known to coaches and teammates, is making her fourth and final appearance on the team.
“I have made the team four years and every time we go to regional’s we have lost and are disappointed,” Wilkes said. “If we make it this time, I know everyone will be very happy.”
A 2010 graduate of Pine Bluff and entering her sophomore season at Central Arkansas, Wilkes said she would like to end her tenure with a trip to Alpenrose Field in Portland, Ore.
“We have done a lot of practicing so we should be ready,” Wilkes said. “Pitching and defense should be our strengths going down there. I think our pitching will carry us the whole way.”
Behind Wilkes in the lineup are centerfielder Lindsey Bowlin, catcher Harley Easter and Mallory McWhorter. The middle of the lineup consists of Rhodes, who is also utilized at second base and in the outfield, and Shelby McWhorter.
Opposing pitchers get no breaks at the bottom of the order, according to Rhodes, with first baseman Jacey Coleman, second baseman Taylor Trail and outfielders Allison Howie and Hayley Raymick.
“There are no real weak spots,” Rhodes said. “I feel comfortable with any of these 11 girls at any time. We have some very talented young ladies and I hope they are able to bond and play as a team. I think we have to talent to reach the world series if we play as a team.”