ROGERSVILLE – The Cherokee Lady Chiefs softball team came within one game of the state tournament last year. This season, they want to get at least one game closer.

“Our motto this year is ‘Leave No Doubt,’” said first-year coach Kristen Richards. “That’s something we’ve stressed with the girls, that in everything they do at practice, in games, in school and in the community, they’re supposed to leave no doubt that they want to be champions, that they’ve got to act that way.

“It’s not just an on-the-field kind of thing. It’s in every aspect of their life they’ve got to leave no doubt that they are different,” said Richards, a 2007 Cherokee graduate and former Lady Chief softball player who went on to play four years at Virginia Intermont.

“I saw a video the other day on Facebook that said, ‘To be a state champion, you’ve got to be different, because not everyone can win a championship.’ That’s kind of what we’re focusing on this year, getting them to be different in everything that they do, be set apart in a good way,” she said.

Cherokee went 27-13-1 in 2017, advancing to the Class AAA Sectional at Powell High School, falling 9-3 to the Lady Panthers, who went on to lose to Gibbs in the state finals.

With the season scheduled to start this week – weather permitting, Richards likes what she’s seen so far of her team.

“They have been mind-blowing this year,” Richards said. “Everything we’ve thrown at them, they’ve tackled with ease. We’re pretty deep. Offensively, we’ve got good sticks all around. Credit goes to Shannon Mowell. He’s our hitting coach this year. Hitting-wise, I have no doubts.

“Chris Parsons has been working with them on defense. They look solid all the way through. And we’ve got depth,” Richards said.

Ace pitcher Erin Forgety returns for her senior year. Number-two starter and fellow senior Faith Webb is ready to go, too.

“Erin and Faith are going to be our two, go-to pitchers for varsity,” said Richards. “Erin has kept her arm conditioned. She’s looking good. She’s learned a new pitch, so we’re going to be working that in as we can. She’s been doing the work on her own, something you don’t always see.

“We have quite a few girls that are putting in a lot of time outside of practice. Almost all of them play travel ball. We have two freshman pitchers that will be holding the JV for us, Morgan Lawson and Katie Rosenbaum. But if they need to come into varsity and pitch, they will,” Richards said.

Richards said any of the pitchers will have a solid defense behind them. Webb and Forgety will rotate at first when the other is pitching. “Faith is an awesome first baseman, too,” Richards said.

Audrey Mowell will be starting at second base. Grace Jones moves back to shortstop and Paisley Lyons will play third.

Daisy Brown will handle left field, Jennah Powell takes over in center and in right field will be Rosenbaum. Hailey Elkins will be behind the plate.

Richards expects her batting order will be solid top to bottom.

“Right now, we’re starting Hailey Elkins at leadoff,” she said. “She’s been really good at getting on base. She’s good at drawing walks. That first batter has got to be someone who gets on base.

“Then we’re looking at Grace Jones in the second spot. She’s already gone 4-for-4 in our first play date,” Richard said, adding the 3-4-5-6 spots were “kind of up for grabs right now between four girls.

“Paisley Lyons has a lot of power. She’s playing third base for us. Faith Webb is a consistent hitter. She’s been doing awesome this year. Shannon’s been working with her, making minor adjustments,” she said.

“She’s been improving tremendously. She’s feeling more confident, too, and confidence has a lot to do with everything softball. That’s something we’re seeing team-wide. They’re getting to where they feel comfortable and that’s where we need them,” Richards said, rounding out the lineup.

“Daisy Brown will be playing left field for us and freshman Katie Rosenbaum will follow. They all hit with power consistently for us. Jennah Powell will play centerfield,” Richards said.

The Lady Chiefs’ bench will press the starters for playing time, she added. “We’ve got some girls that are right there with them, so that may change. T.T. Addison is doing awesome in the field, so she might be seeing some playing time out in right field. Jacy Moncier, too. Siera (Light’s) stick has been hot so she’s going to be in the lineup, maybe as a DH for somebody.”

Richards relishes the opportunity to coach the team on which she once played.

“This is my passion,” she said. “I’m blessed to have this opportunity. It’s honestly a huge blessing. All credit has to be given to God that the opportunity was even open.”

Richards, who previously coached Cherokee’s bowling team to the state tournament, enjoys the return to softball.

“I love the pace of the game. There’s always something happening and one little thing can change everything. You’ve really got to stay focused 100 percent of the time,” she said.

A former pitcher, after graduating CHS in 2007, Kristen Dyer played four years at Virginia Intermont. “After that, I started coaching travel ball and I was also helping here under Charlie Christopher. I coached two years under Charlie and a year under Kelli (Hughes) here, then I just focused on travel ball after that and stopped to have a family. I was pregnant with my first one when I stopped coaching here. Then I got hired here,” said Richards.

Richards said part of her responsibility as coach is to teach life lessons for off the field.

“It’s about the girls as individuals instead of athletes,” she said. “We’ve got to prepare them for life outside of softball because it‘s going to end one day.”

On the field, Richards is coaching her team to take it to the opponent.

“We’re focusing this year on being aggressive with everything, going after every opportunity that we see, being aggressive on the base paths and with everything,” she said.

Richards has experienced help in the dugout.

“We’ve got a great coaching staff this year. Shannon Mowell has coached travel ball for five years and he helped coach at middle school last year. Chris Parsons has coached for over 15 years, so he knows ball. He’s helping us a lot. We’ve got a volunteer that’s come in as she can, Gabby Andrews. She was my catcher in high school, so she’s very knowledgeable about it, too,” said Richards.

Cherokee’s seniors will provide leadership, as well.

“We have five seniors — Erin Forgety, Faith Webb, Grace Jones, Naomi Lewis and Kirsten Henson, and a senior manager, Bethany Minor,” Richards said.

After reaching the region in 2016 and the sectional in 2017, the Lady Chiefs want to take that next step – to the state – in 2018.

“As far as the girls, one of their goals is to be undefeated in the conference,” Richards said. “We’ve talked about having attainable goals. They’ve got their minds set. The talent here is unbelievable. They are shooting to go to state and I definitely think that’s attainable this year. It can be done if we can keep our minds focused that whole time.”