JOHNSTON — The Strom Thurmond High School softball team didn’t make Class AAA state playoffs last year. Head coach Mike Wood said part of the reason his Rebels failed to qualify for the postseason was a lack of experience.

“We weren’t far off. We were a pitcher and an outfielder away from competing,” Wood said this week, as he worked to prepare this year’s squad for the start of the season. “This year, we can compete for (a playoff spot). We’ve got an influx of newer girls.”

One of the most intriguing new additions could be Maggie Massey. The middle infielder/outfielder won’t provide much experience, and she’s still just trying to make the team.

But just doing that would be impressive. That’s because Massey’s a 12-year-old seventh grader.

“Realistically, she can do it,” said Wood who has experience playing middle school students on the varsity team. “She can be one of the girls who can contribute as a seventh grader.”

That’s high praise, but not as strong as the words of Ron Conley, a private instructor who has been working with Massey for more than a year.

“She’s the next great one,” said Conley, who has helped hone the skills of a number of area softball players over the years, most recently working with former Silver Bluff star Kinsey Parrish.

For her part, Massey said she’s happy to be part of the team. She isn’t dwelling on the possibility of great expectations.

“It’s really an honor,” Massey said. “The girls have brought me into the team, and that’s been nice. They’ve brought me in as a team member.”

While the Rebels can use the help of new players, Massey isn’t being considered for a spot – possibly starting – just because she’s a fresh face. Wood lauded Massey’s all-around skills, and was effusive in his praise for her handwork.

He said Massey has great hands, possibly the best on the team, adding that particular level of coordination isn’t a teachable skill. That’s especially vital to her on defense, with the ability to field the ball cleanly and transfer it from her glove to throwing in one clean motion.

“I can see Maggie playing shortstop or second. I’m confident I can put her anywhere, but I will play the best nine,” Wood said, who also said Massey has a very good arm and a good bat. “She’s very willing, and when I ask her to do something, she does it.”

Breaking in at shortstop won’t be easy, primarily because that position is currently occupied by Brooke Benenhaley. The junior has been an All-Region selection since she was a ninth grader and was an All-State selection last season.

Benenhaley’s also one of two players prior to Massey that Wood played when she was a seventh grader.

The other is Morgan Smith, who has since transferred to Midland Valley after her family moved. But Smith had an immediate impact for Strom Thurmond and was named All-Region when as a seventh grader.

“A high standard has been set, but from everything I’ve seen, Maggie is very capable,” Wood said. “When you turn the lights on, it can be a big eye opener, especially when you’ve got an 18-year-old pitching to you. But I’m optimistic she can handle it.”

While Massey will face many new challenges as a part of the varsity team, she’s used to playing against elite competition. In addition to playing for school, Massey’s also a member of the Upstate Express travel ball team, which is based out of Greenville.

“We play a lot of good competition,” said Massey, who’s in her third year of playing for an exclusive club team, sandwiching a year with the Georgia Rockers in between two stints with the Express. She’s even been invited to play at a showcase camp, where she performed in front of a who’s who of the Palmetto State’s top college coaches. “I feel like I’m good, but there’s always room for improvement.”

Her positive attitude is only surpassed by her infatuation with softball, according to her father Doug. After starting to play softball when she was eight, Doug said he and his wife, Tami, quickly realized their eldest child had an affinity for the game.

“She played a year or two of rec ball, and she wanted to do more,” Doug said. “All of a sudden, I realized we were living this game. She trains throughout the summer, and everything is built around softball.

“She’s playing six days a week and wants to play all the time.”

Doug said he found himself working with Maggie throughout the year, especially in the summer. He has also helped get her more tutelage from Conley and Keith Vaughn, her coach with the Express.

“She’s lifting weights, doing push ups, sit ups and is even dabbling in pitching practices,” Doug said of his daughter, who Tami pointed out is also a straight-A student, setting a good example for younger siblings Matthew, 8, and Claire, 6. “But we don’t push her. She’s self-driven.”

That drive has put her in position to join a small group of talented youngsters to get a very early start with the Rebels. Maggie said her focus is on doing anything she can to make the team better.

“I want to help lead the team to wins,” Massey said of her goals this season – should she make the team. And even though she’s just 12, Maggie has some long-term goals in mind as well. “I want to play at Division I college,” noting that Alabama and Georgia are among her favorite schools.

Playing at the top level of college softball is a long way off, but Wood said he’s going to do what he can to protect and nurture Maggie’s talents. He said he’s gotten a lot of support from the other players on his team, who have made efforts to take Maggie under their wing. He credited his junior and seniors, including Benenhaley, for being encouraging to the youngster.

For his part, Wood said he’d bring Maggie along slowly. That would likely mean batting her at the bottom of the order when she plays, in an effort to relieve pressure. He said that strategy worked with Benenhaley and Smith previously, allowing them to work their way up, and their position was performance based.

“I’d like to think she has the possibility to do what Brooke has done and be our best player,” Wood said. “But it’s so difficult, so many things can happen. I’ve had good success with the last two seventh graders to play for me, but they’re all different. My job is to put her in the situation to do well.”

For Maggie, it’s even simpler. She’s doing it because she said it’s, “fun.”

Noah Feit is the sports editor for the Aiken Standard and has been a professional journalist for more than 14 years after graduating from Syracuse University.