Team chemistry is a valuable asset in athletics. It’s apparent that Bryan College head softball coach Mark Ritchhart may understand that better than most.

A year ago BC’s head man, who was about to enter his third season as the leader of the program, sought after and secured a pair of Cocke County High School’s most highly touted prospects in the same class.

The 2020 season marked the beginning of Ariel Holt and Jarica Ensley’s collegiate careers, as both signed to play for Ritchhart at the NAIA institution in Dayton, Tenn.

A faith-based school, Ritchhart runs his program like a family. So, it’s only fitting he brought in a pair of CCHS alums that have been longtime friends since childhood and were already like family to each other.

“Ever since we signed together, I knew that it was going to bring me some kind of peace knowing that we ended up at the same school,” Ensley said. “I think that having (Holt) around made me more comfortable around people, especially the softball team.”

The duo had their freshmen campaigns round out to an unceremonious end due to the current coronavirus pandemic, but that didn’t leave them short on memories made and more experiences to look forward to with the program in the future.

“I had a great first year at Bryan,” Holt said. “Being here has made me more independent and reliant on myself. The school is an incredible setting for both athletes and students, alike.”

With Holt and Ensley on the roster, the program made great strides from where it was a year prior to their arrival.

In 2019 the Lions finished the year 20-28 after being ousted in their first two games of the Appalachian Athletics Conference tournament. The team was .500 in league play on the year at 13-13.

While Bryan College had only made it through 19 contests before the 2020 season was called off, the team held a 12-7 overall record, and was a perfect 6-0 in league play. The Lions were on a seven-game win streak before the season was cancelled.

“The program handled the situation well, I thought,” Holt said. “We obviously did not want it to go this way, but safety is more important. It just hurt knowing that we had played our last game for the season.

“I felt worse for the seniors, though. My heart broke for them. The seniors made a big impact on me and pushed me to strive to do my best for the program. I hate to see them leave and not get to play the game that they love anymore.”

Both Ensley and Holt made their fair share of contributions this season. Ensley appeared in every game of her freshman year, while Holt made 10 appearances of her own.

Ensley finished third on the team by year’s end with 20 base hits, and was second on the team with 16 RBIs. She was also held a co-team high for home runs with two, an area the team flourished in compared to year’s past.

“Being able to work my way into a starting role was a huge highlight for me,” Ensley said. “But as a team we had already hit more home runs in the 19 games we played than the team hit altogether last year. I thought that was extremely cool to be a part of.”

The CCHS duo will have ample opportunity to leave their mark on the Bryan College program over the next three years, including the very near future.

BC graduates seven seniors this season, three of which were a part of the team’s pitching staff. Both Holt and Ensley are two of five remaining pitchers on the current roster set to return for next season, and could see a bump in playing time whether inside of the circle or out.

“I’m looking forward to what’s in store for the future,” Holt said. “More than anything, I’m ready to get back on the field with my teammates and working hard to get better for next season.”

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