Navarro softball

Daily Sun photo/Mike Phillips

Navarro's softball team is a much closer, and much more focused group this season.  A few of the top players posed for a photo. From left are Ally McKendree, Faith Fernandez, Madison Pond, Sarah Koeppen, Lindsey Garner, Bailey Bowers and Jenna Rude.

It's more than a chip.

Bigger, heavier and a whole lot more aggravating than your every day chip.

So when the softball players from Navarro tell you they're starting the new season with a chip on their shoulder, forget the normal cliché and add your imagination and some new math to the equation.

"It's pretty big," said Navarro sophomore Jada Woolley. "Real big."

After all, the Dawgs played 28 games in the conference last season and just missed going to the postseason.

"One game," Woolley said. "We played all year and missed it by one game -- we were one game away."

It's the same 28-game season in the Region XIV East Zone Conference that awaits these Bulldogs, but it's not the same team that will play in those games.

"We're a different team," said Carmen Acosta, a sophomore second baseman who says the biggest change is not in bats and balls, but in the belief in each other.

"Last year we had a selfish team," she said. "We played selfish ball. This year we play family ball."

That's not just Acosta's opinion. That's the feeling up and down a lineup that's loaded with talent. There are 10 starters back from a team that had batting average of .350, and a fresh new group of freshmen that seem to be more mature -- and yes, a new group that has already bought into the idea they're playing for each other.

The Dawgs bring all that and more to the diamond for legendary coach Jessica Karenke-Burke, who won her 600th game last season, and is back for more with a smile on her face.

"The best thing about this team is I can't pinpoint one thing," she said.

Coach K knows that her players know there's a difference, and that the new season is all about playing for each other and winning together.

"They are not afraid to hold each other accountable," she said. "And that's something we did not have in the past (last year). You see it in practice. They like each other. They get excited to see someone else do something great."

And one more thing about these Dawgs: This team can rake. 

"I feel like this team has all the tools," said Woolley," who was a star at Corsicana High School before coming to Navarro, where she hit .474 with 11 homers and drove in 41 runs. She scored 32 runs and finished with an .888 slugging percentage.

She was half of the Corsicana connection. Madison Pond, another four-year starter and star for the Lady Tigers, hit .405, stole 19 bases and scored 41 runs at Navarro last year.

Jessa Johnson is back after hitting .403 and scoring 32 runs and her younger sister, Jenna Johnson, has made the trip from Beaumont to join big Sis at Navarro.

Jenna Rude, a terrific outfielder from Arlington, is also back for the Dawgs, and Acosta was also part of last year's hit parade, batting .350 and driving in 29 runs while belting four homers.

The Dawgs may or may not have all the tools, but they do have Sarah Koeppen, an All-American who had a monster season last year.

Koeppen belted 19 home runs and drove in 58 runs while scoring 53. She  batted .444 and hit 10 doubles, and finished the season with an .863 slugging percentage. .

And she's another believer.

"We definitely have a lot more unity this year," she said. "We all have our eyes on the same goal. We know how good we are and we're locked in."

Then she paused and smiled. It was a big smile.

"We're playing really good this year from the get-go," she said. "We were together from the start. The minute everybody got here it's like we knew each other for years."

Coach K brought in 10 freshmen, and she's excited about the new additions.

"We've got good leadership from the sophomores and the freshmen," she said. "We have some sophomores in some pretty  key positions, and our freshmen class brings a lot of power and a lot of softball smarts. Their softball IQ is really high."

Bailey Bowers, a catcher from Livingston, and Faith Fernandez, a talented infielder from Waco, are just two of the newcomers who have a chance to make an impact and Coach K likes her young pitchers to add to a staff that brings back Ally McKendree, a sophomore who was a tremendous star at Mildred High School, and Katie Trimble, who is from Palestine.

"We're a much better team this year," McKendree said. "We're all in it together, and after missing the playoffs by just one game, everyone wants to get there this year."

Coach K is high on both of those sophomores on the mound as well as freshmen pitchers Lorin Reue, Braylee Forse and Lindsey Garner. 

The Dawgs open their season in the Weatherford Tournament on Friday and play their first home game next Tuesday against Temple.

They can't wait.

"We're coming out swinging," Pond said. "We're ready. The freshmen have really stepped up and everybody wants the best for everybody on this team. We're putting the team first, and we can't wait to start the season."

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