BY PEDRO VELAZCO KOKOMO TRIBUNE
---- — The high school softball season is here and several teams are in position to make noise in the spring of 2014. Eastern returns a host of key players from a Mid-Indiana Conference championship squad, Western and Taylor return nearly their entire lineups, and Kokomo and Northwestern have some key veterans back.
The following are previews of the five Howard County squads, in order of their records from last season.
A senior-heavy team returns after a 20-5 season with several key veterans in place but also question marks as the defending MIC champions try to forge another contending team.
“We’ve got good experience back, especially in the infield, but we’re trying to fill three positions,” Eastern coach Jerry Haines said. “One of them is catcher, and one’s third base, and one’s an outfield position. We’re struggling to find how to get those positions all filled right now.”
The Comets’ strength starts in the pitching circle, where senior Abby Oyler returns after a dominant season. She led the county with an ERA of 0.96 over 150 innings with 154 strikeouts.
“I think our pitching will be strong,” Haines said. “Our hitting hopefully is going to come along. We’re going to have to get these three positions filled [defensively] and catcher is a really tough position when you’ve got a strong pitcher. Right now, Maddie Vint’s moved into that position. She played outfield last year, and hopefully she’s going to round into a really good catcher this year. That’s probably the place we’re working hardest on.
“We’re still struggling to get nine hitters in the lineup. We’ve got about six and in tough games, it’s difficult to win when you run out of hitters toward the bottom of the lineup. We’ve got quite a few people that hopefully are going to come on and with a little more experience are going to help us with hitting down in the lineup.”
Vint, a junior, will also have a couple other arms to catch for. Junior Alyssa Haalck (1.56 ERA in 27 innings) and senior Quinlyn Hochstedler are backup pitchers. Haalck can also play third, and Hochstedler starts in center field.
In the infield, Senior Lizzy Mavrick is at first base, senior Ally Oyler returns to second, and senior Brooke Stout returns to shortstop.
Ally Oyler led the squad with a .391 batting average last season, and led the county with six homers and 32 runs. Twin sister Abby hit .354, Mavrick hit .318, Hochstedler hit .311, and Stout hit a county-best 13 doubles.
Outfield prospects include senior Rachel Wingate, freshman Ashlynn Hochstedler, sophomore Emily Harvath, senior Ericka Northern, and junior Kendall Hensley, who can also take third base.
“I’ve got seven strong returners but we’ve got to find two more, and we’ve got to find some better hitting and that’s probably the key,” Haines said. “I think Abby will be strong on the mound, I think our defense will be strong. Other than that we’ve got to find some outfielders.”
Eastern dropped a 1-0 decision to North Miami in its opener last week. The Comets return to action Monday at Alexandria.
The Kats hope to build on last season’s 16-10 season and are optimistic of a better campaign this time.
“I really feel like we’ve got a nice mix of some returning veterans and some exciting young players,” second-year coach Mike Susong said. “We’re young, we’ve only got three seniors on the roster and I feel like our skill level has really improved this year. We’ve worked really hard in the offseason. We’ve got a good chance to make some waves this year.”
Two all-North Central Conference players return to the fold in sophomore Cathy Skaggs, who is moving to shortstop after hitting .429 last season, and junior center fielder Paris McCullum (.358). Plus, a healthy Cami Sharp as the primary pitcher should make the staff stronger. The senior hurler had a 2.82 ERA last season in 111 2/3 innings with 78 strikeouts despite batting a problem hip.
Susong said Sharp is good at “keeping you off balance. She has a great changeup, hits her spots well. She’s not overpowering, but she’s really effective when she hits her spots.”
Sophomores Kourtney Tedlock and Cori Johnston are competing for the No. 2 pitcher spot.
Junior Miranda Ogle (.343) is at first base, junior Sarah Haughn will take second but may be used at third or the outfield, senior Schuyla Sharp is at second or third base, and Skaggs is at short. Sophomore Ramsie Hurlock is the catcher.
Freshman Paige Ward can play third and will bat first or second. Freshman Alexis Clark will play right. Sophomore Emily Fisher is at left. And senior Rajestaney Small can play outfield or pinch run.
Also looking to mix in are junior pinch runner/outfielder Sydney Smiley, and sophomore pinch runner/outfielder Holly Stewart.
“I think we’re gonna hit, I really do,” Susong said. “The girls put a lot of work in hitting and I think we’ll be very good and I think we’ll get better defensively as the year goes on, but I think the girls will hit well. We’ve put an emphasis on that, the girls have put an emphasis on that and it’s shown here in the preseason.”
On the other side, the Kats still have to learn on the job.
“I think the big thing that we’re missing right now if anything is experience, obviously because we’re so young but also our communication,” Susong said. “We’ve got a lot of people in new spots and we want to make sure they communicate defensively. That’s the big thing right now, our girls can hit ... but defensively we need to talk and communicate more.”
Kokomo dropped its opener to Class 3A No. 2 Lebanon last week. The Kats return to action on Monday with a home game against Peru.
The Panthers are confident that they have a winning formula this season after graduating just one starter from a 15-10 squad.
“I’m pretty excited,” Western coach Jim Clouse said. “Basically, we return all of our starting lineup except our catcher who graduated last year. She was our only senior.
“We’ve had eight consecutive winning seasons and building on what we had last year, I think we’ve improved in several positions. Some of our young kids coming up have varsity experience. I feel like I have a sound player at every position defensively, and a person that can back them up.”
The team is counting on plenty of strengths with very few question marks.
“I’m expecting [pitcher] Erika Beeler to have a great season,” Clouse said. “She’s continuing her career at Anderson [University] next year, which has pumped her up mentally. She’s really focused on having a great season on the mound.
“Defensively we’re as sound at every position as we’ve ever been and this is my ninth year. As a hitting team we’ve improved.”
Beeler had a 2.45 ERA last season in 106 1/3 innings with 127 punchouts. Sophomore Abby Renken is the new starting catcher. And freshman lefty Lexy Sanders is another pitching option.
Moving through the batting order, senior shortstop Evie Glover (.382 average, .515 on-base percentage) has the leadoff spot. Sophomore Brooke Strunk hits second after leading the county with a .488 average and 13 doubles as a freshman. She can play outfield, middle infield, or pitch. Junior second baseman and backup catcher Jenna Wiechmann is hitting third. She led the county with 24 RBIs as a sophomore.
The four and five spots are held by senior first baseman Caitlyn O’Neal (.313) and senior center fielder Carley O’Neal, who can flip flop in the order. Sophomore pitcher and outfielder Cali Shepherd hits sixth.
Junior third baseman Shelby Gilbert hits seventh, Renken hits eighth, and either senior outfielder Kiersten Durbin or senior outfielder Haleigh Conaway (.413) will hit ninth, or at times eighth.
Sophomore Jesse Harding is another option at first base. Others who may see time are sophomore hitter Hayley Mills, freshman catcher and pitcher Maddy Poe, freshman pitcher or hitter Morgan Tuberty, and sophomore catcher Sara Schwarzkopf.
Clouse said that this group has never won an MIC title and lists that as a goal but “we know that that title goes through Greentown.” However he hopes that the softball squad learns from the Class 3A state champion girls hoops team, that had the O’Neal twins and Durbin as starters.
“Even the attitudes of the players are different,” Clouse said, noting that when a recent game was canceled as the kids were on the bus, dressed, and ready to go, the players asked to practice instead of be dismissed.
“Maybe our girls basketball team has provided some of that,” Clouse said. “Some of those expectations where a lot of people would have thought winning that last game, state, was impossible for them, but they’ve proved a lot that if you challenge yourself and work hard, good things can happen to you.”
Western hosts Wabash on Monday.
The Purple Tigers feature an intriguing mix of proven veterans and freshmen fresh in from club ball as they try to take a step toward forging a contending program.
Second-year coach Jordan Dyer is upbeat about the prospect of taking positive strides after a 7-14 season.
“Really, starting back in October we had a great offseason,” Dyer said. “I told the girls we’re trying really hard to build a successful program and those girls really decided to dedicate themselves to that effort.
“I think they see that a lot of these teams around this area have had tournament and conference success, and our girls are really hungry for that. I’m extremely proud of the upperclassmen, they’ve really pushed our team on and off the field.”
Returning starters senior Kelsey Richards, junior Kindra Gingerich (.324 batting average, 13 steals) and senior Brandi Harmon provide a stable backbone, but the field is dotted with new faces.
“We’ve got an all-conference [player] with Kindra Gingerich, she’s going to play center field again, and then Kelsey Richards is back in the infield at shortstop again,” Dyer said. “Kelsey really controls the infield, Kindra can get to about any ball in the outfield.”
Harmon is moving from the infield to left field, and senior Kaitlyn Catron moves from a backup spot to take over in right.
Freshman Crystal Metz takes over as the No. 1 pitcher, with freshman Lauryn Wyrick and junior Taylor Bell as other pitching options, each of whom can play first base.
The infield is largely new as freshman Kaitlyn Kennedy takes over at catcher, sophomore Macey Jordan is at first, freshman Sophia Beachy is at second, and freshman Bailey Thatcher at third.
Looking to mix into outfield spots are senior Arika Richey and junior Elizabethe O’Donnell.
“We’re really counting on the young girls to step up and fill the gaps that were left by last year’s seniors,” Dyer said. “We’re pretty aware of what some of the uppreclassmen can do, and we’ve seen the others play travel and whatnot but we really want to see them step up.
“We’re going to rely a lot on Crystal’s arm, she’s a strong lefty that has really thrown pretty well in preseason. The young ones have really adjusted well though. Still, having Kelsey at short has really helped. She’s played there for four years, and Kindra’s played center for three. The seniors, the leadership has really helped. It’s really anchored our defense.”
Northwestern hosts North Miami on Wednesday.
Spirits are high at Taylor to start the season. The Titans didn’t have a senior on a 5-20 squad last year and are heavy with experienced sophomores.
“I’m really excited for this year’s team,” new coach April Johnson said. She was an assistant the previous three seasons. “Most of them have a year under their belt now. We were basically all freshmen starters last year. As long as they have the support of their teammates and don’t second guess themselves I think they’re going to have a tremendous year.
Johnson likes the players’ camaraderie. That’s why she’s so confident that the team is on the right path.
“They’re so close this year, they trust one another, they believe in each other now,” she said. “They’re more comfortable on the field now. I’m really confident in wherever I put girls on the field.”
Three sophomore pitchers return: Rachel Halfley (4.11 ERA, 43 strikeouts in 92 innings), Emma Williams, and Cami Hansen (3.79 ERA in 48 innings).
“Defensively I think we’re going to be very sound,” Johnson said. “We have three really good pitchers. Returning everyone from last year is just going to make for a good year.”
Catching that group are junior McKenna Deckard (.319 batting average) and sophomore Savannah Delgado, who will play short when Deckard is behind the plate. Delgado led the team with a .388 average last season.
In the infield are sophomore third baseman Brie Boehler (.373), sophomore first baseman Lydia Owens, and senior second baseman Jacquelyn Rhoades.
Senior Taylor Mosier is in center field, and sophomore Hannah Mullinax is in right. One of the pitchers will occupy right field when not in the circle and senior Breanna Wright is another option in right field.
Sophomore Valary Farmer is the designated player.
“We’re very aggressive,” Johnson said. “I would say probably 75 percent of my girls all play travel ball so softball is second nature to them. They just come out and play hard every game. We have a lot of good hitters, we’re going to be really strong at the plate this year, then defensive-wise we are solid.”
Johnson praised the seniors for their leadership, which will be important as a young group learns to focus and not let one mistake lead to others.
“I think the sky’s the limit for these girls,” Johnson said. “I think it’s up to them how far they want to go. They have the ability to go to state if they really want to. Our goal is to get out of sectionals this year.”
Taylor is 1-0 after beating Southwood last week. Taylor returns to action Tuesday at Tipton.