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Published: Tuesday, 4/10/2007

Vikings have eye on their first crown

BY MARK MONROE
BLADE SPORTS WRITER

This season marks the 20th anniversary for softball in the Northwest Ohio Athletic League and Evergreen looks primed to celebrate with its first title.

The Vikings have been competing for the NWOAL title since 1987, and have finished second on five occasions.

The kids are aware of it, Evergreen coach Bill Steck said. Our goals are to win the league and try to get to state.

But the only teams that have ever won or shared an NWOAL title are Archbold, Delta and Wauseon. The Blue Streaks have won the most championships (13), including last season. Before that, Delta had won three straight and has six overall. Wauseon has seven titles with the last coming in 2001.

All three programs figure to play key roles in the nine-team league this season.

But Steck has every player back from a club that made school history. Evergreen reached the Division III regional final and lost 1-0 to Brookville. It was the farthest an Evergreen girls team had advanced in a tournament in any sport.

Steck has the top two pitchers in the NWOAL back. Junior Lexie Pinkelman led the league with an 0.78 earned run average and 19-7 record. Sophomore lefty Nicole Natter posted an 0.87 ERA.

Our pitching is our strength and it needs to keep us in games, Steck said.

The Vikings have been runners-up in four out of the last seven years. Before Steck took over, the team never finished over .500. Steck s teams have steadily improved over the years after starting with a 9-13 season when he took over seven years ago.

We want to be one of the better programs in northwest Ohio, Steck said.

Evergreen (22-9, 6-2) and Archbold (17-9, 7-1) split last season with the Vikings winning in the postseason. The teams will meet just once in the regular season (April 26 at Evergreen) this year.

I think it will boil down to which team will be able to hit on that day, Steck said. But I think the NWOAL will be very difficult this year with Archbold, Wauseon and Bryan competing for the championship along with us.

Steck said he has starters back at each position.

Pinkelman also led the team with a. 337 average and 15 RBIs. Sophomore catcher Megan Schwyn (.292), junior designated player Caitlin Winn (.274) and sophomore Ashley Herr (.400 on-base percentage) will be called upon to jump start the offense.

Freshman MacKenzie Pinkelman is off to a hot start (.467) along with senior Joelynn Laux (.333) and sophomore Brooke Smith (.375).

Steck said he will continue to start Pinkelman and Natter will be used in relief.

Archbold coach Joe Frank has seven starters back from the 2006 title team. The Blue Streaks have experience in most positions except the outfield.

We also have Lauren Kern back on the mound, Frank said. She had a very good freshman year for us and she will carry most of the load on the mound. Hopefully we will have an opportunistic offense.

Kern (13-4, 1.69 ERA) also can hit as witnessed by her .333 average last season.

Adi Lange, a junior center fielder, earned first team All-NWOAL honors last season when she posted a .381 average. Senior Shay Neuenschwander finished with a .333 average.

But Frank also lost two first team all-leaguers to graduation. Frank, who is 105-39 in five years at the helm, said solid defense and pitching will be the keys to success.

We are very optimistic about the season, Frank said. We have good returning players and some younger kids who are looking to contribute. If we can get people to play to their strengths, we should be very competitive.

Bryan (13-10, 3-5) is bolstered by seasoned pitchers Ashley Ebaugh and Nicole White and five other returning starters.

Ebaugh (5-1, 2.42 ERA) and White (8-9, 3.29 ERA) combined for 122 strikeouts.

Golden Bear coach Craig Polter said another positive will be the team s solid defensive play led by three seniors second baseman Bri Garver, third baseman Sammi Brubaker and catcher Andrea Wehman.

Brigitte Kuszmaul, a sophomore who earned all-district honors, was second in the league with a .436 average and had the most stolen bases (19).

We return only one outfielder with varsity experience [junior Stephanie Payne], Polter said. But the girls stepping into these positions are quality athletes.

Polter, who has a career record of 94-77 in seven years, said it will be up to his pitchers to keep the Golden Bears in every game.

Our success will start in the circle, he said. Offensively, we need hitters to step up.

Wauseon has two first team, all-league players back in first baseman Shelly Cain and Chelsie Woten (second/third base).

Woten finished fourth in the NWOAL with a .395 average and drove in 14 runs. Cain (.366) had 22 RBIs, two home runs and nine stolen bases.

Pitcher Meagan Sauder will shoulder more of the burden on the mound after the graduation of Darcie Clark, a three year starter. Sauder posted a 2-1 record with a 2.14 ERA and 15 strikeouts.

Contact Mark Monroe at:mmonroe@theblade.comor 419-724-6110.



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