North Gwinnett pitcher Alaina Hall (14) pitches during a game last season.
Last season's finish was pretty good --a 23-10 record, third place in the region and a state playoff berth.
But the goals are higher this season for North Gwinnett's fastpitch softball team, which expects to contend for the title in tough Region 7-AAAAAA. The Bulldogs also hope to fare better at state than in 2011, when they lost in the first round to Archer.
A total of 10 returning players with starting experience is a big reason for the optimism.
"We've got a lot of experience coming back," said North head coach Randy Black, whose team hasn't missed the state playoffs since 2002. "We've got a lot of kids who played a high level of travel softball, so there's a lot of experience. Nearly everyone on the roster has started at some point. It's just a matter of getting them focused on high school softball."
North still must replace some key players who graduated off last year's team, most notably Lacey Najafi and pitchers Emily Wood and Morgan White.
To fill the pitching void this season, Black plans to use a pack of Bulldogs. He guesses that up to six different girls will pitch at times. The group is headed up by Alaina Hall, who also pitched a good bit last year.
"We've never had that many pitchers," Black said. "We won't be using that many all season long. By the end we'll probably knock it down to a top three."
As the pitching sorts itself out, the offense should be stout.
Many of the top bats are in the outfield, including Miranda Strother (an Ole Miss commitment), Kendall McKinney and Draven Sonnon. Moriah Strother, Amanda Shimmin, Katie Black, Tori Prince (North Georgia), Kinsley Jennings and Hannah Harrison also return after seeing frequent action last season.
Mallory Koepke (Georgia State), Ashley Stephan, Megan Kimbel, Lindsey Cobb, Randi Tuck, Chase Battle and Caitlynn Cooper also will be key players for the Bulldogs.
"I think we should be able to score some runs," Black said.
Offense was a strength last season, too. But the bats hit a wall in the first round of state, getting just five total hits in a doubleheader sweep by Archer and its ace, Kanani Cabrales.
That finish wasn't ideal, so the Bulldogs are hoping for better this fall at state and in the region, which should be loaded once again, even though Collins Hill lost star pitcher Kayla Floor to graduation.
Region 7-AAAAAA features last year's Class AAAAA state champion in Collins Hill, as well as the AAAAA runner-up, Mill Creek. North was third in the region behind those two in 2011.
"I feel good about the team," Black said. "It comes down to how well they jell and play together and if they buy into North Gwinnett softball."