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Changes mark opening of softball 2010
North Hall’s Tanya Howington practices dry swings with teammates during Friday morning’s practice at the school’s softball field as the Lady Trojans prepare for the upcoming season. - photo by Scott Rogers | The Times

Three feet may not sound like it is enough to change the landscape of a sport, but it certainly will have a major impact in high school softball this season. Due to rule changes adapted last year by the Georgia High School Association, the pitching circle will now be 43 feet from the plate, rather than the 40 feet it previously measured.

The rule was changed to attempt to level the playing field between the pitcher, often at a perceived advantage with such a short distance to the catcher, and the hitter. North Hall softball coach Bruce King feels like the result will be a drastic reduction in low scoring games this season.

“There’s going to be more of an emphasis now on offensive production and a lot more balls put into play,” King said. “There’s not going to be nearly as many 1-0, 2-1 type games anymore.”

Not only will the hitter have more flexibility to time a pitch from the circle, but she will also have time to gauge the break on a change-up. However, Buford coach Tony Wolfe thinks the off-speed pitcher may hold somewhat of an advantage now with more room to create movement on the pitch to the plate.

“Your power pitchers may have a tougher time now since it gives the hitter three more feet to watch it into the strike zone,” Wolfe said. “It does make it more of a hitter’s game.”

Of course, no one really knows what the impact having a greater distance to the plate will create until applied to the regular season, which kicks off for many teams this week. White County coach John Brown has been told by players that they feel no major impact will be felt in the long run.

“I think we may see the hitters putting the ball into play more,” said Brown, the coach of last year’s Region 7-AAA runner-up. “We’ll find out.”

The other major change this season is the movement of most schools to new regions. Most of the schools from the old Region 7-AAA — which was heavy with Hall County programs — have shifted over to Region 8-AAA. The exceptions to that locally are Flowery Branch moving up to Region 8 in Class AAAA, and East Hall going down to Region 8 in Class AA. Region re-alignment is done by the GHSA based on enrollment figures and applies to all sports.

Also, West Forsyth and Creekview — both strong softball programs — moved up in classification. However, Oconee County, the Class AAA state champion in 2005, 2006 and 2008, remains in Region 8-AAA for the bulk of the Hall County schools to face.

“We lost some really good schools in our region and we are going into a region with some really good teams,” Gainesville coach Jeremy Kemp said. “So I don’t think there will be that big of a difference.”

With such an increased emphasis on strong pitcher with the new rule in place, Brown likes the way his pitching staff stacks up. White County returns senior Stephanie Satterfield and junior Callie McDonald, a winner of three games last season at region, for 2010.

Even with shortstop Heather Herdliska temporarily sidelined with a broken finger, the Lady Warriors still return nine regular contributors from last season, including Morgan Jacobson (9 HRs last season) and senior Laura Sangster (a three-year starter).

“If we stay healthy, we have a good opportunity to have a good showing,” Brown said.

In Class AA, Buford — one of the few schools in the area not to move to a new region — will be seeking its fourth consecutive state title this season. With both starting pitchers returning for the Lady Wolves in senior Karly Fullem (a Georgia Tech verbal commit) and Melissa Dickie (committed to North Georgia College & State University), Wolfe likes his team’s chances.

“This might be the most experienced team we’ve had in my four years, but there’s always room to improve,” Wolfe said. “But we certainly like the challenge.”

Buford’s list of returning starters is extensive with senior infielders Chelsie Thomas (also committed to Georgia Tech) and Whitney Wolfe, and juniors Lexi Overstreet, Kallie Case, Madyson Wynegar and Kodi Ricketson.

Sticking with tradition, Buford opens the season with games against larger schools, including a season opener against Class AAAAA’s Peachtree Ridge on Aug. 18, followed by Oconee County then Creekview — all part of tournament play in West Jackson.

In Region 8-AAA, region tournament play will also have a different format this season. Each subregion champion will get a bye during the first two rounds, securing a spot in the state tournament.

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