By Bruce Thornton
The 2023 Fast Pitch softball season got underway this week as 24 teams across the southern six counties of South Mississippi begin their quest for a state championship.
East Central was the only one of those teams last year that advanced to the championship series in 5A but fell to 9-time state champion Neshoba Central for the second consecutive season. Petal (6A), Kosciusko (4A), Booneville (3A), East Webster (2A) and Taylorsville (1A) joined the Lady Rockets as State Champions last year.
In Division 7-6A, Ocean Springs looks to defend its division championship as Head Coach Lindsey O’Brien returns for her 12th season in charge of the Lady Greyhounds. Ocean Springs fell to eventual state champion Petal in the South State Semi-finals last year. St. Martin finished behind OS and after knocking off Oak Grove in the first round fell to Gulfport in the second round of the state playoffs last season. Kaitlin Lee begins her first season in charge of D’Iberville as the Lady Warriors were eliminated by Brandon in the first round last year. Lee, who prepped at Harrison Central, had a decorated college career at Mississippi Gulf Coast Community College and Ole Miss. Pascagoula returns several starters from last year’s squad and looks to compete for a playoff spot this season.
In Division 8-6A, Gulfport comes off another 20-win season under Head Coach Kristi Basso. The Lady Admirals went undefeated in division play last season and were eliminated in the South State Semi-finals by NorthWest Rankin last season. Hancock finished 2nd in the division and lost to Petal in the 2nd round of the playoffs last season. Joe Rankin takes over the Lady Hawks and returns to the high school ranks after guiding the Alcorn State Lady Braves for several seasons. Coach Rankin began his career at his alma mater in charge of the St. Martin Lady Yellow Jackets. Harrison Central looks to improve on last year’s 3rd place division finish as the Lady Red Rebels lost to Ocean Springs in the second round of the playoffs. Coach Jimmie Parker is the dean of coastal head coaches beginning his 28th season. Coach Parker will be inducted into the Mississippi Association of Coaches Hall of Fame this summer. The Biloxi Lady Indians under second-year head coach Emily Todd look to crack the playoffs for the first time since 2016 in arguably the toughest 6A division in the state.
Division 7-5A finds the Pearl River Central Lady Blue Devils under veteran Head Coach Tony LaBella, looking to defend their division title. Coach LaBella begins his 10th season as PRC went a perfect 6-0 in division play last season. The Lady Blue Devils fell to George County in the second round last season. West Harrison advanced to the South State Semi-finals last season falling to East Central as Head Coach Brittany Rogers returns for her 14th season in charge of the Lady Hurricanes. Picayune looks to return to the playoffs this season as the Lady Maroon Tide fell to division rival West Harrison in the second round last season. Long Beach looks to rebound this season and challenge for a playoff spot in this highly competitive division.
Last season, Division 8-5A saw its three playoff teams join West Harrison in the South State semifinals as East Central knocked off West Harrison and George County defeated division foe Vancleave. The Lady Hornets then defeated the Lady Rebels 5-4 (10) and 2-1 to advance to the State Championship. Gerald Edmondson in his first year guided East Central to a perfect 6-0 division mark and a state championship game appearance. Vancleave finished second in the division under long-time Head Coach Donna Bragg. Coach Bragg begins her 15th season leading the Lady Bulldogs. George County under Head Coach Kasey McCann got into the playoffs as a 3 seed but defeated Wayne County, PRC and Vancleave on their way to a surprising South State runner-up spot. Coach McCann begins her 7th season in charge of the Lady Rebels. The Gautier Lady Gators under 2nd year Head Coach Shana Gunter hope to take a young squad and compete in this ultra-competitive division.
Division 8-4A finds the Bay High Lady Tigers under Head Coach Wali Shabazz looking to defend their division title. Coach Shabazz in his 15th season looks to improve on last season’s second-round playoff loss to Purvis. Tyler Barham takes over at Stone County after guiding Greene County for the past several seasons. The Lady Tomcats fell to perennial 4A power Newton County last season. Pass Christian and Moss Point look to make a run at playoff spots along with Greene County and their new head coach Kyle Long.
In Division 7-4A, Poplarville looks to get back in the playoffs. This will be a tough task for the Lady Hornets as they will compete against Lawrence County, Purvis, and defending South State Champion Sumrall.
In 3A, St. Patrick fell to Enterprise Clark in the second round of the playoffs last season and along with OLA will compete with Perry Central, Jefferson Davis County, and West Marion.
Resurrection takes on Richton and Lumberton in Division 8-1A play.