After years in Class AAA, Richmond Hill High School had to navigate its way through its first season playing softball at the Class AAAA level last year.
It was the challenge everyone expected Region 2-AAAA to be.
"It was a bigger region and the level of play was much better," Lady Wildcats Softball coach Sean Strickland said. "In our AAA region, there were only two other competitive teams, West Laurens and Thomson, and there were only five of us in the region to begin with. Now, not only are there more of us, but every region game is competitive."
That defines the Lady Wildcats in 2010, when Richmond Hill finished with a 14-15 overall record and a 5-5 subregion mark in 2010, good enough for third place.
But with six returning seniors leading the way in 2011, Strickland expects his team to compete at least for a shot at a subregion title, if not more.
"Winning the region would be ideal," he said. "I think we have the team to do it, but it would take a total team effort to really do it ... that means everybody filling their roles and doing the little things to put us over the top."
Of Richmond Hill's six returning seniors, three earned All-Region honors last season - pitcher Lauren Simerly, shortstop Cheyenne Marsh and first baseman Trisha Jennings.
Simerly, a first-team pick, threw 129 2/3 innings in 2010, finishing with a 10-10 record, 89 strikeouts and a sparkling 1.40 earned run average. She also hit .375 and drove in a team high 20 runs and led the team in hits with 30.
Jennings, an honorable mention who has already committed to play at Berry College, hit .321 with a team-high three home runs and a team-high .538 slugging percentage. Marsh, also honorable mention, batted .314 and trailed only Simerly in hits with 27.
Other starters returning include senior second baseman Amy Robben, senior center fielder Sydney Millek, senior catcher/outfielder Olivia Bascombe and junior catcher Sophia Lorimer.
Meanwhile, juniors Amber Nixon, Molly Burnsed, Kaylee Vaughn and sophomore Erin Morrissey are expected to battle for starting positions as Strickland and assistant coach Angie Hummeldorf look to fill voids at third base and in the outfield.
Robben, who serves as one of the team's co-captains, sounded an optimistic note as the team went through workouts on Thursday at Lady Wildcats Field.
She said the team is closer now than it was in 2010 and should be competitive since many of the players were involved in workouts and also played together on a travel team called the Top Cats.
But the focus now is on Region 2A-AAAA, she said.
"Last year we didn't do as well as we wanted to in the region," Robben said. "This year we really just want to do great in the region. If we do great there, that will carry us on to state and from there we'll go as far as we can."
Richmond Hill's competition for the postseason starts with Wayne County - the top program in Region 2A-AAAA - and continues through Ware County, Brunswick, Glynn Academy and Liberty County.
"Wayne won the subregion last year and will probably be at the top again," Strickland said. "Ware County is always tough ... Glynn Academy and Brusnwick and Liberty will be competitive. Every region game we play is going to be a fight."
In addition, Strickland has scheduled his team to play tournaments in Statesboro, Brunswick and Lowndes County.
The other side of the region - 2B-AAAA - includes powers such as Greenbrier, which went 32-12 and finished second in the Class AAAA tournament last year and South Effingham, along with Evans and a resurgent Effingham County program. Thomson, Lakeside Evans and Statesboro round out 2B-AAAA, and the Lady Wildcats play at Statesboro in August in a tournament.
Richmond Hill also will play in tournaments in Brunswick and Lowndes County in September.
Robben, who said she doesn't know yet whether her career will continue at the next level, wants to make it matter.
"I'm not so sure about college ball yet," she said. "If this does happen to be my last year of softball, I want this year to be something I'll always want to remember. I'm sure that's the same with any girl on this team."
Notes: Tryouts are Aug. 1. A 50-inning fundraiser will be played Aug. 5-6 and the season begins Aug. 11 vs. McIntosh County Academy
• The last time the Lady Wildcats made the state tournament was in 2009, when Richmond Hill, then a Class AAA school, lost in the first round to Northside Columbus. In 2008, the Lady Wildcats advanced to the sectionals in the Class AAA tournament.
Aug. 11 vs. McIntosh County Academy
Aug. 18 at McIntosh County Academy
Aug. 19 at Jenkins
Aug. 23 at Brunswick
Aug. 25 at Liberty County
Aug. 26-27 at Statesboro tournament
Aug. 30 at Ware County
Sept. 1 vs. Wayne County
Sept. 2-3 at Brunswick Tournament
Sept. 6 vs. Glynn Academy
Sept. 8 at Brunswick
Sept. 13 vs. Liberty County
Sept. 15 vs. Ware County
Sept. 16-17 at Lowndes Tournament
Sept. 20 at Wayne County
Sept. 22 at Glynn Academy Sept. 30-1 Region 2-AAAA playoffs