Fort White moves from Class 4A into Class 1A this season. The Lady Indians are in District 6-1A along with Baldwin, Hawthorne, Hilliard, Newberry, Union County and Williston (photo by DONNY JOINER/Special to the Reporter).

Lady Indians return to the sandlot

Fort White looks to be competitive in Class 1A.

FORT WHITE — They’ve only had a few weeks of practice, but the Lady Indians already expect big things in 2016.

Fort White moves over from Class 4A to Class 1A this season, a welcome change for a team that struggled at times a year ago in 4A. Last year’s 1A champion was Chiefland, a team Fort White beat during the season, so it comes as no surprise that the Lady Indians think they can hang with anybody in a new classification.

“I think it’s a great opportunity that we have to be very competitive,” Fort White head coach Michele Padgett said. “Last year’s state champion in 1A was Chiefland, and we actually beat Chiefland, so I feel like we’re going to be very competitive this year.”

The Lady Indians will battle in one of the larger districts in the state. District 6-1A  is a seven-team division that also includes Baldwin, Hawthorne, Hilliard, Newberry, Union County and Williston.

That isn’t necessarily a problem for Fort White. Padgett believes it levels the playing field for her squad.

“It’s nice to be in a district with schools that are the same size as us, that have the same issues as us,” Padgett said. “We’re a small school, so our girls play multiple sports and we’re just now getting our girls who play basketball with us at practice this week. We still have girls who are weightlifting, but other teams are having the same issues. The larger schools that we’ve been in a district with [before] have girls who play fall ball and spring ball, and there’s so many children at the larger schools that there’s not as many who play all the sports.”

Fort White finished 8-11 a season ago but just 2-8 in district play, getting bounced in the tournament opener by P.K. Yonge. Playing bigger schools was certainly an issue for the Lady Indians, who were mercy-ruled four times.

Consistency will be the key for Fort White this season, something Padgett says has already been evident in practice.

“Everybody is hitting and everybody is fielding well, so we’re much more consistent than we were last season,” Padgett said.

Senior pitcher Morgan Cushman, who recently signed with the College of Central Florida, will once again lead Fort White on the mound after posting a 0.60 ERA last season. She’ll be throwing to a new catcher, though, as Alexa Hatcher has graduated and moved on, replaced by Savannah Perry.

Perry was on the junior varsity roster a season ago but is a player Padgett is excited about this season. However, she’ll have big shoes to fill after Hatcher led Fort White with a .321 batting average and 14 RBI in 2015.

“We had some girls that we would have liked to have had on varsity last year, but because we wanted to have two teams last year, she played on JV,” Padgett said. “She came up this year, and she’s just a fantastic catcher, and I can’t say enough about her. She’s just a great little ball player.”

Cushman will have help behind her in the rotation as Shelby Dubose also returns. Sophomore third baseman Raven Miles can also play catcher while Padgett expects improved offense from junior shortstop Kylee Crews.

“Crews has really grown and developed,” Padgett said. “Her bat is very hot through the practices … the two pitchers also complement each other. They work as a team real well together, and they can switch in and out of a game with absolutely no problem, so that’s wreal good for us.”

One luxury Padgett has heading into this season is versatility. She has multiple players who can play multiple positions, and although she hasn’t settled on a lineup, Preseason Classic games today and Friday against Branford and Hamilton County should provide some clarity.

“I can do a whole lot of things, and I will do a whole lot of things,” Padgett said, “That’s the point of the classics, so that we can see what we have, what we need to work on and where we’re weak.”

Fort White opens the regular season next Tuesday at home against Williston.

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