By Anvil Welch

Coach Kirk Harryman once again is optimistic when discussing the Joplin High School softball team.

The return of seven seniors with starting experience can do that to even a veteran coach.

“That experience is nice,” Harryman said Monday. “Obviously, those seven seniors — all have a chance to start — will play a big part in our season.

That experience starts with senior right-hander Kelsey Loyd.

“It’s nice to have a veteran pitcher who’s been hurling for us since her sophomore year,” Harryman said.

“It also should be fun and exciting to see how our younger players can contribute.”

The Eagles open their season at 4:30 p.m. today by visiting Neosho for a varsity-junior varsity doubleheader.

The seven seniors also include shortstop Katie Darby, right fielder Jessie Musser, center fielder Sam Phillips, third baseman Paige Strella, catcher Randi Russell and left fielder Stephanie Taylor.

Musser, who played third base early in the campaign, averaged .333 with 28 runs scored and made The Globe’s All-Area Team. She was 11-for-12 in stolen bases.

Taylor actually is competing for the nod in left field with junior Kaylee Hempen, Harryman said.

Russell, who saw duty at third base the last two weeks, was sidelined with an injury most of 2006. Strella and sophomore Arlissa Arwood, also a pitching candidate in 2007, saw most of their playing time last season at second base (Loyd’s position when she wasn’t pitching).

Ashlie Shimmin, a sophomore, is in the mix at third base, Harryman said, after serving as the designated player last season.

Harryman said Lauren Copple and Kimmie Matejcek, both juniors, are battling for the nod at first base.

“We’re doing some things very well on offense,” Harryman said. “I really like the way we’re swinging the bats in practice. Our pitchers also are throwing strikes.”

The 2006 Eagles, finishing 9-1 to win a sixth straight Ozark Conference championship, wound up 18-13 overall. They lost in the semifinals of their Class 4 district tournament.

“Definitely, we need to find consistency on defense,” Harryman said. “We want to stay away from the big innings.”

Notes: Joplin’s Paige Neal/Christina Freeman Tournament, starting at 5 p.m. Thursday, will be held at Missouri Southern State University. The eight teams are guaranteed five games apiece. ... Harryman, who’s in his seventh year with the Eagles, has veteran assistants in Erin Jones and Bruce VonderHaar.

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