Andy Finch still has the video.
Anytime he likes, the Caledonia High School softball coach can watch senior right fielder Olivia Boykin step to the plate on March 9 during a spring break tournament at Itawamba Community College — bottom of the sixth inning, Caledonia tied 4-4 with Russellville (Alabama), one out.
Boykin, known for her glove but not so much her bat, had already notched two hits in the game. On the 12th pitch of that fateful last at-bat, she laced a two-run double into left center field. Caledonia won, 6-4. Boykin’s mother sent Finch the clip, “which I love to death,” he said.
Finch isn’t likely to forget Boykin’s moment of triumph anytime soon. At the end of the week, when the nascent COVID-19 pandemic suspended play across the state, it turned out to be the last play of what could have been a standout season for Caledonia.
The win against Russellville capped a 3-0 tournament that also included wins over Tupelo and North Pontotoc, and Finch and his players “were riding a high wave,” he said.
The coronavirus changed that. A one-week pause turned to two. Caledonia looked around at other states to find that the writing was on the wall. The 2020 season never resumed.
“The girls were just heartbroken,” Finch said. “They knew what they had — they had a good, special team.”
Now, with the 2021 softball season about to get underway, the Cavaliers are determined to repeat the success for which they were poised last spring.
Caledonia came into 2020 as the defending Region 2-4A winner, coming out on top in a tough district comprising Amory, Pontotoc, Itawamba Agricultural, Mooreville and Shannon. The current 2-4A trades the Panthers for South Pontotoc but will provide just as tough a challenge. Every region game, Finch said, will resemble a playoff game in intensity and importance. That won’t be easy for his players to handle.
“It’s very, very tough, and everybody’s gunning for them because they won it two years ago and last year nobody got a chance to knock us off,” Finch said. “They’re going to be coming at us even harder. You’re going to get everybody’s best every time we step on the field because of that.”
And although Amory is now in Class 3A, Caledonia will begin the season against its former region foe in a 7 p.m. Tuesday home game at the Cavs’ home field.
“Amory will be a good test for us right off the bat,” Finch said. “It’s always been a dogfight with them. They’re very scrappy, and they’re going to play hard.”
The Panthers are just one part of the difficult schedule Finch has cobbled together for Caledonia. The Cavs go to Starkville on Thursday and Smithville on Friday, and they’ll bring in East Central, East Webster and West Point on March 17 for a spring break tournament.
“Our schedule’s always been tough,” Finch said. “We always want to play good teams.”
Into those pivotal contests he will bring a young roster featuring just three seniors: Jada Glasgow, Aimee George and Allison Pennington. Finch said Caledonia will depend heavily on the play of eighth-graders, sophomores and juniors after losing four seniors — Boykin, Carlee Dale, Maddy Suggs and Tori Brooks — from last year’s team.
“We’ve still got a few question marks in the lineup and defensively, but we’ve had a lot of young girls step up to fill those roles,” Finch said. “We’re just excited about watching how they perform under pressure in varsity games.”
While pitching will be a question mark for Caledonia, Finch said, eighth-grader Ava Arnold and sophomore Lauren Brown have made major improvements in the circle, working with pitching coach Austin Earnest to hone their arsenals and develop new offerings. They’ll join junior Ashlyn Jordan as the Cavs’ top three pitchers.
In the infield, juniors Madalyn Dvorak and Kaydence Suddith will compete to start at first base. Brown or Arnold will man second while Glasgow, an East Mississippi Community College signee, will hold down short. Catcher and third base are currently toss-ups between a number of players, Finch said.
George and junior Brooke Knoop, who was named to the all-district team as a freshman in 2019, will bring leadership and experience to the outfield, rounded out by an eighth-grader in right field.
Finch said Caledonia has been taking advantage of Wednesdays — dedicated by Lowndes County School District to virtual learning — with weekly scrimmages every Wednesday.
“I think it benefits the older girls and young girls, being out as much as they were, seeing live pitching throughout the whole fall,” he said.
And although it’s been nearly a year since the Cavs played another school, Finch knows they’ll be ready when the time comes Tuesday.
“The girls have gone above and beyond to get better,” Finch said. “… It’s just amazing how far they’ve come in a year and a half.”
Theo DeRosa reports on Mississippi State sports for The Dispatch. Follow him on Twitter at @Theo_DeRosa.
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