Five softball teams to watch, courtesy Fred Kroner
The Warriors have had 20-win seasons six times in the past 10 years. If coach Lenny Sementi’s program continues to flourish, a starting point will be a returning All-Area pitcher (junior Erin Walker) and a returning All-Area catcher (senior Amber Miller).
Two other key returnees are back from last year’s school-record-tying 26-8 team. Carmen Comerford and Madison Frerichs are the only seniors besides Miller on the 13-player varsity roster.
“Our expectations are always high and this year is no different, but with such a young team, we will have to be a little more patient when it comes to reaching them,” Sementi said. “We have struggled at times on defense in the early going. This was not a good year to have limited time on the diamond because of weather.”
The inexperience shows most on the infield.
“We lost the entire infield from last season, and that group had been there for three years,” Sementi said.
Among the newcomers who will make an impact are sophomores Morgan Little and Peyton Shelmadine along with freshman Karli Allan, who is batting cleanup and had four doubles in her first four games.
“Our strength may be the complete opposite of last year,” said Sementi, whose team is off to a 3-2 start. “We were very strong defensively, but we have to count more on our offense this year. The girls have really bought into swinging with more power and being more aggressive on the bases.”
Allan is a first baseman and designated hitter.
Senior shortstop Kalli Gosser, a two-time All-Area first-teamer who signed to continue her career at Wisconsin-Parkside, is one of the Bunnies’ headliners.
Sophomore pitcher Kelcie Fredrickson and sophomore catcher Leah Williams are other prominent returnees for coach Ken Ingold, whose team is 5-1. “Those two should benefit from a year of varsity experience, and our expectations for both these girls is high,” Ingold said.
Other Fisher veterans are senior first baseman Sydney Baker and sophomore Rachel Tobeck. “I believe our defense and team speed will be much improved over the last couple years,” Ingold said. “Expectations are increasing at Fisher.”
The Bunnies are coming off back-to-back 9-20 seasons and are seeking their first above-.500 season in nine years. Juniors with extensive playing time are infielder Taylor Hadden and Hannah Varner, who can play in the infield or outfield. There are more freshmen (seven) on Fisher’s 17-player roster than any other year, and several figure prominently. Molly Fairfield (third base), Emilee Schwing (second base) and Toree Stalter (center field) are starters. Megan McCoy will supply pitching depth, and Madison Farrar will see time in the infield.
Interim head coach Stefanie Davis — who is filling in while Kim Fraser takes a year off — is working with six returning starters from last year’s 21-3 Vermilion Valley Conference championship team. The headliner is All-Area first-teamer Brittany Hay, a junior shortstop.
Davis said Hay has “a deep passion and understanding of the game and leads the team on and off the field.” Senior Callan Hall is establishing herself as a defensive presence behind the plate, and junior Lexi Sliva (5-1 record) is stepping into the role of the Buffaloes’ primary pitcher.
Sophomores Megan Burris and Shay Yates will help solidify the outfield, which includes a third sophomore, LeeAnn Conrad, who had six stolen bases in a recent game. Another 10th-grader, Tristyn Mingee, is a utility player who can be called upon at various positions. “Our offense is aggressive, and we are looking to hit the ball,” said Davis, whose team has a 6-1 record. “We have a strong returning lineup. Defensively, we have a tight infield and a developing outfield.”
Hall’s transition to catcher (from center field) has been a bonus for G-RF/C. “Callan has stepped up to fill the position. This change in position has her in a leadership role that she is naturally developing into,” Davis said.
Senior Madison Cramer has recovered after missing last season with a knee injury and plays at third base or in left field. She will help add punch to the lineup. “With the leadership that we have, I feel confident that we can encourage our newcomers and progress through the year in a manner that accomplishes our goals,” Davis said.
Seniors besides Cramer and Hall are third baseman Catie Brandt, second baseman Emilee Campbell and first baseman Maya Green.
It has now been a quarter of a century since the Spartans had anything but a 20-win season in softball under coach Randy Wolken, the state’s all-time winningest coach in the sport. Last year’s squad raised the standard of excellence at SJ-O, posting a school-record 41-1 record en route to a third-place finish in the Class 2A state tournament.
“We will not be nearly as strong as we were last year,” said Wolken, whose team is 5-0 after winning Saturday’s Rantoul Invitational.
The SJ-O headliner is senior catcher Mickaela Fleming, an All-Area first-teamer as a junior. She will handle pitches from twin sister Samantha as well as from junior Lexie Boaz. Samantha Fleming was 9-0 last year with a 0.93 ERA. Mickaela was second among the Spartans with 10 home runs and 76 RBI.
Samantha Fleming and Boaz play at first base when not pitching. Senior center fielder Kenzie James (.436 batting average in 2012) and sophomore second baseman Molly McElwee (.468 average) and sophomore shortstop Mady Poulter (.315 average) are others who played regularly a year ago.
Junior Hannah Gawthorp, who didn’t play last spring, is a promising third baseman. Wolken expects contributions from freshmen Hannah Monk and Allison Rose. “Our strengths are hitting, fielding and base running,” said Wolken, the only coach in the program’s 34-year existence. He entered the season with an 859-208 career record.
The Spartans’ 33rd game this year will be No. 1,100 with Wolken as coach. Joining James in the outfield are right fielder Carly Miller, the fourth SJ-O senior, and left fielder Ashlynn McConaha. The Flemings have committed to Mattoon’s Lake Land College. James will continue her softball career at Washington University.
There’s no team in the area with more experience than the first-year cooperative team coached by Matt Darling. His 19-player roster includes 14 who started a year ago either for Arthur-Lovington or Atwood-Hammond, and eight of those were good enough to warrant some all-league recognition in the Little Okaw Valley Conference.
Two of the veterans are pitchers Ashley Tabb, from A-L, and Kaitie Wildman, who played for the South Piatt cooperative last year (an allegiance between A-H and Bement). “Last year, we (A-L) were 10-1 when Ashley got hurt,” Darling said. “She didn’t come back until regionals. We finished 15-9, and six of those losses without her were by one run.”
The current Lancers who earned all-league accolades last spring besides Tabb and Wildman — who now share the pitching and shortstop duties — are third baseman Sherelle Coller, right fielder Kate Kauffman, center fielder Alex Miller, left fielder Mallory Renfro, first baseman Emily Seegmiller and second baseman Brooke Tabb.
“They are all counted on heavily,” said Darling, whose team is 5-0. “Because of all the experience, this is the first time I haven’t started a freshman in four years I have been there. I have a deep bench.”
Junior catcher Emily Harlin is off to a strong start. She has thrown out four of the opponent’s first five would-be base stealers.
The Lancers have been assigned to a loaded Class 2A regional at Tuscola that will include the state’s sixth-ranked team (Shelbyville) along with strong Meridian, Sullivan and Tuscola squads. Ashley Tabb and Coller were all-conference first-teamers a year ago.