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Friday, April 19, 2024

Paris Softball Hopes to Take Next Step in Program Rebuild This Season

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PARIS- Last season was tough for a Paris softball program that had grown accustomed to playing deep into the postseason state playoffs. The 2023 record is what it is, and everyone connected to the program will tell you it was a tough go all season for the Lady Eagles. The program graduated its highly decorated, All-State pitcher, Jayden Hart, in 2022, and several other seniors who had backed-up Hart on defense were also gone from the program. So, when first year Lady Eagles head softball coach, Jonathan Vire took over the program in 2023, the cabinet was bare with the exception of two seniors in particular, Jayden Wells, and Rachel O’Neal, who played their final seasons of eligibility along with a very young and inexperienced roster. In short, it was just a tough year for the program in 2023.

Turn the page forward, and in 2024, the Lady Eagles will return several young players who gained a lot of experience last season. That experience, along with a transfer pitcher who could provide more experience and depth in the circle for Paris, could combine to propel the Lady Eagles up the standings of the 3A West making them more competitive this season.

The 3A West conference is home to last year’s 3A state champions, the Booneville Lady Bearcats, who feature All-State senior pitcher Lexi Franklin. Joining Franklin and the Bearcats will be the Hackett Lady Hornets, and their All-State pitcher, Makenzie Freeman. The Lady Hornets could be poised this season to make a run at a possible state championship. So, for the rest of the 3A West conference, it could boil down to a race for the third and fourth seeds at the end of the regular season.

A few weeks ago, RNN Sports had the opportunity to visit with the Lady Eagles’ coach, Jonathan Vire. Coach Vire is also the head girls basketball coach at Paris, so we appreciate him taking the time to visit with us on the phone in the middle of basketball season as we looked forward to the start of high school softball. Paris will open their 2024 campaign on March 4 at Dover.

We started our conversation by looking at an overview of last season. Like I mentioned in the opening of this story, Coach Vire inherited a very young and inexperienced team for the most part. When I asked him about last season, the coach began by saying, “We definitely had to play some girls at different spots; they got thrown into the fire. I think that most of them are all back and some may play at different spots than they did a year ago. We graduated Jayden (Wells) and Rachel (O’Neal) who played a lot. But everyone else will be coming back. We have to fill those two spots (vacated by Jayden Wells and Rachel O’Neal) for sure.”

As earlier mentioned, the Lady Eagles have a player who has transferred to the program who they have high hopes that she will be able to contribute this season. That player is Abby Nacol, and Coach Vire hopes she can add depth to the available pitching this season for Paris. Coach explained, “She transferred to Paris from Nebraska. She has been enrolled at Paris since the start of this school year. She should help contribute in the circle. Abby is a sophomore. She has played a lot of travel ball and has a lot of experience. She will help in the circle and her bat is not bad at all. Her other positions I think are first base and maybe the outfield. We’ll put her (on defense) wherever we can put her when she is not pitching. She is definitely going to help us out.”

The 2023 Paris schedule was adjusted to begin a week later than originally planned. That was due to the team not having a pitcher ready to begin the season. I asked Coach if last year’s experience and the addition of Nacol has better positioned the team to start the season this year. Coach replied by saying, “We will definitely be ready this season. You know, last year, Kirsten (Schneider) got sick. She had to do it (pitch for the Lady Eagles) so we had to push our schedule back. She didn’t have time to get her arm ready after she return from the illness, and I didn’t want to put her our there and jeopardize her when she wasn’t ready. But with having Abby this year we will be ready to go.”

A year ago, Paris had current University of Arkansas freshman softball player Jayden Wells, and Coach Vire tried to use her in several positions to give the young Lady Eagles as much help as possible. I asked Coach who he thought would take Jayden’s place this season as that utility player that could move around the infield to provide a defensive advantage in different situations, they may face this season. Coach said, “Really, it is going to have to be Kaydence (Freeman) and she will be the veteran in the infield. This season will be her third season as a starter. I think Preslee (Bowman) will play at first base, and those two will have to be the leaders. Second base is going to probably be someone that hasn’t played there. Third base is either going to be a freshman or someone who has not played there. So, we are going to be young at those two spots. At short and first, we have some experience. Behind the plate, it will be Emily Patterson.” Patterson has played some behind the plate, so she will bring some experience to the position.

In the Lady Eagles’ outfield, Coach Vire said that Annabelle Perry will play center. The talented junior has great athleticism and can cover the gaps with her great speed and also has a strong arm on throws to the infield or to the plate. Coach continued, “Right field could be a Layla Patterson; she played there some last season. She may have to end up playing second base. Left field could be Kirsten Schneider, but she also could end up playing second base. So, it is still kind of a puzzle, but we have some pieces that we feel comfortable with. It is just a matter of making sure that we can get everything as close to ready to go as we can.”

Paris fans may get to see the team play several players in different positions in the non-conference portion of their schedule early as the coaching staff tries to determine the best players and combinations to play going into conference play. Coach also said that “We could also go into JV (junior varsity) games with about 13 or 14 players, and we could play everyone again (in the JV game) and move them around to get a better idea. We can see where they will fit in best.”

On offense, Coach Vire says he has some players that can hit with power, but we kind of want to play a little more “small ball” (bunting, moving players into scoring position) and try to manufacture as many runs as we can. We have some power hitters, but we also have a bunch of speed. So, it will be a little bit of a mixture on offense, but we do want to do a little bit more “small ball.”

When I asked Coach Vire about his conference schedule this year, he began by talking about having the defending state champions in an otherwise tough 3A West conference. Coach said, “Booneville graduated a few, but they are the state champs. So, until someone can knock them off, I think the conference race will be them and Hackett. Booneville did graduate some key pieces, but they still have Lexi Franklin, and when you have a pitcher like that in the circle, you are tough to beat. And then Hackett…I don’t think Hackett graduated a lot last year, and they have Freeman in the circle, so, both of those teams should compete for the conference championship again. We have two of the toughest teams in the state in our conference. And when you go to the regionals, the conference seeds will have to likely face Lincoln. So, we have three of the top teams in 3A in our conference and region.”

It will be very possible again in 2024 that the 3A state softball champion will call the 3A West their conference home. “I think it will be Booneville and Hackett competing for the state title.”

Realistically, Paris and the remaining teams in the conference will be playing to be a three seed at the end of the season and the postseason district tournament. “You play everybody in the conference once, and you may upset one of them on a bad night. Who knows what can happen, but, realistically, everyone else will be playing for third place.”

The common denominator for the top two teams in the conference is great pitching. So for the Lady Eagles, more depth and experience in the circle may help the team be more competitive for what fans hope to be a three seed and a solid regional seeding. After the 2023 season, that would be a huge step forward in the rebuilding status for the program. Coach shared, “I think the pitching this season could give us an improved chance.”

Kirsten Schneider did a great job competing last season under very tough circumstances. She gave courageous efforts every week when the team had no other options to offer any relief to the young Lady Eagles pitcher.

Looking at the Paris softball schedule for this spring, Coach Vire shared some highlights of the Lady Eagles’ opponents. “We are going to go to the Russellville tournament this year. We are going back to the Greenwood tournament as well. Other than that, there is not much different on this year’s schedule. Most of our games will begin at 4:30 p.m.”

Eagles fans can go to Scorebook Live on the internet to see the 2024 Paris softball schedule. Readers who are viewing the electronic version of this story can click on this link to be redirected to the schedule: Paris Eagles Softball Schedule – Paris, AR – scorebooklive.com

RNN Sports would like to thank coach Jonathan Vire for giving us his time to contribute to this story. It will not be long until Eagles fans make the trip to Dover to see the Lady Eagles open the 2024 softball season.

We wish Paris and all of the River Valley teams the best of success this season!

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Jim Best
Jim Best
Jim Best is a man of many talents. His storied career in Arkansas education led him to a new passion, and hidden gifts in sports journalism.
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