Six seniors return from the Jefferson City softball team that finished third in the state in Class 4 last season. One key piece, however, won't be in the dugout today when the Lady Jays begin their season against Lebanon.
Lisa Dey, who racked up more than 400 wins in 21 years at Jefferson City, stepped down in January. In her place is former assistant coach Zac Miller.
"There are definitely some big shoes to fill," Miller said. "I feel comfortable in the head-coaching role. I've done it before, but yeah, it's an amazing opportunity coming into a position where she has built a legacy. It's an honor to be able to have that opportunity.
"It's exciting and nerve-racking all at the same time."
Miller previously coached softball at Brookfield High School and Fair Play High School, where he also coached baseball. Miller played baseball at Chillicothe High School and Culver-Stockton College.
Miller was excited this spring when he found out he had gotten the job.
"For one, I hate moving," he said. "But it's definitely exciting. My wife, she's a graduate of J.C. Her family's from here, and so they know what it is to have that Jay Pride and to go through that, so there was a lot of excitement."
Though two players from the Lady Jays' third-place squad are now playing in college - Brooke Rozier at Iowa and Darby Brundage at Culver-Stockton - the numerous seniors will help ease Miller's transition.
One of those seniors is Taylor Dey, Lisa Dey's daughter. Miller said it will be nice to have the former coach around - this time on the other side of the fence.
"She's already got her spot picked out," he said.
Last season, the Lady Jays' trip to the Final Four went through Blue Springs, which had only one loss on its record at the time. The Lady Jays defeated the Wildcats 1-0, then moved past Ozark 5-0 in the quarterfinals. Lee's Summit defeated Jefferson City 7-0 in semifinal play, but the Lady Jays bounced back later that day with an 8-0 win against Eureka.
Miller said having the experience of going to state will pay off in his first year.
"We know what it's like to be there," he said.
Alyssa Schulte, who threw complete-game shutouts against Blue Springs, Ozark and Eureka, returns for the Lady Jays, as do fellow seniors Dey, Hannah Hirschvogel, Megan Newton, Kaitlyn Tambke and Emily Williams. The varsity roster also includes three juniors, four sophomores and a freshman.
"We have good numbers this year, and so that's exciting, too," Miller said.
Size is one of the biggest differences Miller is adapting to, having previously coached at Class 1 and 2 schools. With a school of more than 2,000 kids, scheduling and higher expectations can be added challenges.
Another change is simply the fact the name atop the program will be different for the first time in more than 20 years.
"I think anytime you step into a role, you have things that have looked one way for so long," he said.
Miller has some familiarity with Dey himself. He coached under her for five years, and his wife played catcher under Dey when she was in high school.
"She gives me pointers all the time," Miller said.
One thing that won't be constantly changing this year is where the Lady Jays are playing. After switching in the past between Riverside Park, the American Legion Post 5 Sports Complex and Binder Park for softball camp, home games and tournaments, respectively, Jefferson City will now host everything at 63 Diamonds.
"Everything will all be out there," Miller said. "So that will be nice, to kind of have a place that we can almost call home."