For the first time in 27 years, Tuttle softball will begin their fast-pitch season with a less familiar appearance.
The most obvious difference is the absence of Jerry Bates, who for nearly three decades spent his time cultivating the Lady Tigers program into a regular powerhouse. His surprise retirement for personal and family reasons in September of last year means Jennifer Prince will now have to try and pick up from where Bates left off: a 33-7 season and a state tournament appearance that ended in a 2-1 loss to Purcell.
"That's the expectation; that's what makes Tuttle softball," Prince said. "That's what was bred under coach Bates."
In addition, star pitcher Shea Coats has graduated on to Oklahoma Christian University, and three more seniors -- Salem Anthony, Alex Luce and Annie Combs -- signed for Oklahoma Baptist. Fortunately, Prince says the program at Tuttle has been set-up well enough to make her confident in the players coming into regular starting roles.
"We're definitely going to miss Shea, Alex, Salem and Annie," Prince said. "But we also have a great group of seniors coming up now. My outfield and middle infield will be the same. But, my corners are going to be different."
Since the school won it's first title in 1994 under Bates, it added six more as he turned the Lady Tigers into a consistently formidable team. They were ranked third in the state last year when they lost out to Purcell, but by that time Bates had already left and Prince was stepping in to help coach the team.
With that experience and as a Tuttle native, Prince feels more comfortable taking the team over from such a prominent figure in Oklahoma softball
"It's different for me because I grew up here and was in the program," Prince said. "I definitely think there's big shoes to fill. But I just know I have to do the best that I can and get the girls to do the best that they can. There is overall pressure, though, just because this program has is so successful."
The Lady Tigers will go into territory never before charted by Prince -- as this is her first high school coaching gig -- but with experience leading the way. Bailey Saye will take the number one pitching role from Coats, and Prince has lauded her starter's talent and experience.
But, there is a slight worry for the Lady Tigers when it comes to pitching depth.
"We're still working on our number two pitcher," Prince said. "It's different for Tuttle, because they've usually been strong in depth in pitching."
While Prince is please with what she has inherited by taking over at Tuttle, she admits the next few days will involve learning more about her team, and vice versa, ahead of the new season that begins Aug. 13 against Linsday.
"We've practiced a little bit over the summer, but not everyone was there all of the time," she said. "I think all of them are trying to get to know me and I'm still getting to know them. This is a great group of kids. They're hard workers and do what they need to do to get better as individuals and as a team. That has impressed me the most."