Tom Smith knows all about playing the hand that he's dealt. He just wishes the deck wasn't always stacked against his team.
Smith has 11 players as he begins his second year as Anne Arundel Community College softball coach. But that's an improvement over last season, whenthe only thing sitting on his bench was the water cooler.
"As long as they stay healthy, that's my main concern," he said Tuesday, before rain halted an afternoon practice. "It worked out finelast year, even though we didn't have the numbers, because all nine girls got along real well. They pushed for each other and there were no problems on the team."
Well, there was the late start, an over-worked pitcher and 13 regular-season losses. But a second-place finish behind defending champion Charles in the Region XX Tournament -- when the Pioneers upset Essex, 13-5, and Dundalk, 4-3 -- not only salvaged the season, it may work as a springboard to this year.
"We were all impressed," said sophomore Chrissy Finkner, a Broadneck graduate whose .341 average led the team. "I know it helped my self-confidence."
Another player whose confidence has risen is sophomore pitcher Amanda Bates. The Severna Park graduate struggled early last seasonbefore settling down and doing some of her best throwing in the regions.
The rocky start "was because of me coming out late from coaching the (women's) basketball team," Smith said. "If we had had her throwing earlier, she would have been a lot stronger. And the weather was cold when she first started, and during the first five or six games, and she couldn't get going."
Bates, who says her first few outtings were "a nightmare," walked 12 and gave up eight hits in a 10-4 loss to Prince George's in last year's home opener.
"We started late and I wasn't even in shape by the time our first game started," shesaid. "In high school, I was used to throwing all year round. My control definitely suffered."
Being the only pitcher didn't help, either. When Bates ran into difficulty, no relief was in sight. But thathas changed with the return of sophomore Shauna Johnson of Meade, a hard thrower who backed up starter Kendall Wall two years ago, but who chose not to play last season.
"It'll help a lot with doubleheaders, and just knowing if I get in trouble, somebody's there to help me out. It makes me feel a little more at ease," Bates said.
Johnson will see most of her time at shortstop as part of a set infield that includes freshman third baseman Devon Reardon of St. Mary's, secondbaseman Finkner, and freshman first baseman Kathy Green of St. Mary's.
The outfield picture isn't as clear, however. Smith and assistant coach Jim Hendricks must choose from sophomores Barbara King of Chesapeake and Nikki Beall of Meade, and freshmen Lisa Purkins of Glen Burnie, Suzanne Driver of Broadneck and Vicky Ardis of Old Mill. Purkins also can work behind the plate.
Two members of the basketball team, sophomores Stacey Dent of South River and Katie Laidley of Severna Park, may join the squad later.
"Last year, we weren't even sure we were going to have a team," Finkner said. "We look a lot better. We're more prepared."
Hendricks has seen to that, monitoring thepractices while Smith completed the basketball season.
"This teamis quicker and has a little more power than last year," Hendricks said. "Defensively, we have two strong arms in the outfield in Nikki and Suzanne, something we didn't have last year."
Something the Pioneers don't have this year is the support of fellow Maryland JuCo coaches, who picked them to finish seventh in the league in a preseason poll. Charles and Catonsville were chosen as the top two teams.
I think we can challenge for it, even though we're not picked to be up at the top, which surprised me," Smith said. "I thought with Amanda being back and such a strong showing last year, the coaches would rate us a little higher."
They may regret not doing so if Anne Arundel can defeat Charles, ranked 18th in the nation, in tomorrow's opener.
"I think this year's team is going to want to win more than last year's team," Finkner said. "Last year, we were just out to have fun. I think this team is out to play softball."