By Josh Brown
MIAMI COUNTY — Last season, first-year Troy softball coach Megan Campbell wanted to put down a solid foundation.
This season, the Trojans get to keep building from there.
“My first year taking over, a lot of things needed to change,” Campbell said. “Our focus was on getting back to the fundamentals and providing a framework for the girls to work off of. This season, we’ve been working on learning the game on a deeper level, and I couldn’t be more impressed with how the girls are picking it up.”
Despite the shift last year, the Trojans finished 11-15 and 6-4 in the Greater Western Ohio Conference North Division, third behind Piqua and Greenville who both tied for the division title with 9-1 records. The Trojans also improved from the beginning of the year to the end, winning 3 of their final five games — with the two losses being to Covington, which reached the state tournament for the third straight year, and a narrow 5-4 tournament loss at Fairborn.
And while the Trojans had relatively few players graduate last year, the biggest hole to fill will be at starting pitcher, a role Amber Smith occupied for a long time. But junior Mackenzie Vernon is ready to step in after a year as the No. 2 pitcher.
“Amber had started since she was a freshman, I think. But Mackenzie brings a lot of pitching experience, too,” Campbell said. “She knows pitching and is good at her craft, She can figure out what’s working and what’s not on her own, she knows her stuff. Though she’s quote-unquote new to starting varsity pitching, she’s very mature in what she does.”
The defense behind Vernon will have a veteran look to it, too. Seniors Maggie McClurg (shortstop) and Brittany Sowers (first base) will provide a solid anchor, while junior Allison Pierce brings back two years of experience at third base. And Rainey Rohlfs - who will also likely bat at the top of the order - brings speed to second base after getting a year of experience last season.
And in the outfield, juniors Alex Wilt and Megan Schreiber will play center and left, respectively, while Victoria Adams can either play right field or play infield to fill holes where needed.
Newcomers Kylie Kiser and Melanie Henson will catch, while Melanie’s twin sister Natalie Henson will also pitch. Dani Lade also steps up as a utility player.
“That’s been a huge focus for us, building a defense that has a lot of maturity and whose strength is knowing each other,” Campbell said.”Kiser, we originally brought on to pitch, but she’ll be the starting catcher for us. We’re keeping a small number of girls this year — 12 — so they’ll all see playing time.”
Offensively, though, the Trojans don’t have any standouts this season — which suits them just fine.
“We’ve got a team approach to everything we do,” Campbell said. “Our goal offensively this year will be to adjust to different kinds of pitchers. In three scrimmages so far, we’ve seen three different kinds of pitchers. Our defense is going to keep us in games and give our hitters time to adjust to the pitching they’re seeing.”
And in a packed GWOC North, they’ll need to do that every night out.
“Greenville is always a force to be reckoned with, but you never know who’s going to come out of it,” Campbell said. “We should be a dominant force, but we’re humble enough to know that anyone can beat us on any given night. “We view every team in the division as a threat.
“As a whole, we’re learning how to play with experience and be confident in what we know we can do. We’ve really been working on mental toughness, on finishing in those sixth and seventh innings.”
Troy opens up with Lakota East at home Saturday, faces Milton-Union on Tuesday and then leaves for Tennessee for a week-long trip against some tough competition.
Former Tippecanoe JV coach Clay Lavercombe takes the reigns for his first year coaching the Red Devils’ varsity team this season — a team just a few short years removed from a state semifinal appearance. And Lavercombe knows where the current Devils can go, too — if they focus on realizing their potential.
“I think this year has the potential to be a great year,” he said. “The potential is definitely there for the team. It will come down to practice and hard work. I’m a firm believer in ‘whoever wants it more will achieve their goals,’ so we’ll see how hungry they are and how much they want it.”
Brianna Eichbaum returns for her senior season as the team’s ace after going 16-9 with a 3.95 ERA, and junior Megan Rittenhouse will have an expanded role on the pitching staff after getting some experience last year. Lauren Goodall will move over from a utility role to being the everyday catcher.
Freshman Kaitlyn Stocker will back up Goodall and play shortstop, with returners Ali Muse at third, Rittenhouse at second and Stephanie Kraska at first. Cassie Gingerich will anchor the outfield in center, with sophomore Rachel Rusk back for her second year in the outfield.
“I think we have solid defense, offense and pitching,” Lavercombe said. “It will come down to how they perform both as individuals and as a team.”
• Miami East
After winning a district title last season and eventually falling to state tournament-qualifier Covington, the Vikings find themselves in a position they haven’t been in for a long time — looking to fill spots and gain experience. Luckily, they’ve still got plenty of talented players to do that with, though.
“The team will be young and inexperienced this season after graduating six starters from last year’s district championship team,” Miami East coach Brian Kadel said. “There are still plenty of talented girls left to continue to compete with every team on the schedule. We will need to rely on consistent pitching and defense to win games.”
That pitching will come from senior Sam Denlinger, who was 8-2 with a 2.63 ERA last season. Sophomore Meagan Pettit will also see an expanded role on the mound after pitching 11 innings with 15 strikeouts and a win last year. Senior Taylor Miller and juniors Kris Bigelow and Amy Hahn are all competing for time behind the plate.
Junior Olivia Edgell played third base last season but may move over to short, with senior Ellie Gearhart likely competing for the hot corner position. Denlinger will play first base when she’s not pitching, with Pettit, Rachel ad Emily Hawkins, Megan Caudill and Riann Kingrey all also competing for time in the infield. When not catching, Bigelow will play center field, with Kingrey, Hahn, Emily Hawkins and Kati Runner all in the running for playing time in the outfield.
“The (Cross County Conference) will be competitive this year, with four or five teams having a chance to win the league championship,” Kadel said.
Since taking over the Covington softball program as head coach in 2009, Dean Denlinger has built a state power — earning three straight trips to the state final four in the past three seasons.
But the word thrown around the area in regards to Covington softball in 2014 is “rebuilding.”
And there might be something to that as this year’s team only returns three starters from a year ago to a roster where 11 of the 16 kids in uniform are underclassman.
“This is the youngest team I’ve had since I’ve been here,” Denlinger said. “Youth brings competition and we have a lot of positions open for competition. We’re trying to put the puzzle together. Nothing is really settled at this point, but the girls have great attitudes and are working very hard.”
Senior Haley Adams and junior Jessica Dammeyer took care of two-thirds of the outfield a year ago, but may have to switch positions as the only player who returns in the infield is junior Morgan Arbogast.
Plus, with the graduation loss of one of the premier pitchers in the history of the program in Casey Yingst, Arbogast may be counted on to fill those shoes — meaning the entire infield will likely have a new look.
“We’re going to have a different look, that’s for sure,” Denlinger said. “The good thing is we have some leaders who understand the expectation and are leading by example right now — helping get our younger kids up to speed.”
Two of those leaders are seniors Haley Adams and Morgan McReynolds, two players who have big-game experience by playing in three straight state final four games.
“We will count on Haley and Morgan to provide the senior leadership, but another leader for us is Arby (Morgan Arbogast),” Denlinger said. “We also have a few other girls who played key roles last year, maybe not as starters, but they contributed greatly to our success.”
And the youngsters will need to grow up in a hurry if Covington is to challenge in a very strong Cross County Conference, where programs like Miami East, Newton, Bradford, Ansonia, Arcanum, Tri-Village and Twin Valley South are traditionally strong.
“Our league is loaded this year with some really good teams,” Denlinger said. “Our conference schedule is as tough as it gets.”
Rebuilding or not, Covington will have a huge bullseye in its back.
Veteran coach Kirk Kadel returns for the Newton Indians, who finished 19-10 overall last year and 7-4 in the Cross County Conference and graduated All-Ohio pitcher Kirsten Burden, left fielder Tiara Jackson and third baseman Kasey Thompson.
Returning letterwinners include juniors Laura Burden, Erin Hixon and Megan Rutledge, sophomores McKell Deaton, Laura Oaks, Madison Mollette, Ryle Schauer and Rose Studebaker.
“We will be young this year and have big hole to fill with Kirsten’s graduation,” Kadel said. “We are low in numbers and injuries are already causing us to change the lineup. We do have three good candidates at the pitching spot in Laura Burden, Erin Hixon and Laura Oaks — all may see time on the mound this year. Middle infield and catcher while young, are returning and should be solid.”
Newton’s strong schedule includes the CCC.
“We have a very demanding schedule this year and all members of the team must contribute if we are going to have a good year,” Kadel said. “Our league is one of the strongest in the area and any team is capable of beating you if you aren’t on top of your game.
“This year Arcanum, Bradford, Covington, and Franklin Monroe should be the top teams. Although again there isn’t a weak team in the league, we hope to finish in the middle somewhere.”
Lehman’s Bill Booth has been coach of the Cavaliers’ softball program for an amazing 26 years now and shows no signs of slowing down. And he heads into the coming spring optimistic because of the presence of eight returning letter-winners off last year’s squad, including his No. 1 pitcher.
“We are returning a lot of upperclassmen with lots of varsity experience,” Booth said. “We have some newcomers that will help us immediately. The girls have been working hard and are ready to start the season.”
This will be a different season for the Cavs. In the past, Lehman has always played its home games at the Flanagan Softball Complex, since it has no field of its own at the high school. However, major flooding has left some of the fields in town unplayable, at Flanagan and across the road at Custenborder Field. So Lehman’s home games this year will be played at Harmon Field.
In addition, Lehman will be playing for a league title for the first time in a long while, the school having joined the Northwest Central Conference in all sports.
Returning are pitcher Lindsay Bundy, catcher Julia Harrelson, third baseman Ellie Cain, and outfielders Erica Paulus and Sarah Gravunder. They are all seniors. Also back are first baseman Brooke Jones, shortstop Ava Schmidt, and outfielder Ellie Sargeant.
Freshman Sidney Chapman is expected to handle first base, sophomore Ally Hall will likely start in the outfield, and also seeing action there will be sophomore Janelle Gravunder and freshman Faith Phelps. Sophomore Emmalea Rego and freshman Camille Odle are also looking to contribute.
Information submitted by Miami County softball coaches.
Contact Josh Brown at (937) 440-5251 or firstname.lastname@example.org, or follow @TroyDailySports on Twitter.