Clay may have to deal with some growing pains early in this 2011 fastpitch softball season, but Brenda Radabaugh remains firmly optimistic, even after a humbling 12-0 loss at Perrysburg in the team's second game last Thursday.
Despite some crucial losses to graduation, the veteran head coach still sees the Eagles as a strong contender for a third straight City League championship and fifth title in six years.
If Clay can solidify its defensive play, the Eagles should also compete well come Division I tournament time.
These are the expectations of a softball program which has produced five straight 20-win seasons.
That run includes a 24-5 record (11-0 CL) last year when the Eagles lost 5-4 in 13 innings in the district final to eventual state semifinalist Springfield, and 24-6 (11-0 CL) in 2009, when Clay reached the D-I regional final for the second time in school history.
"If we can get things settled down on defense, I think we have the potential to contend for the City championship again," Radabaugh said. "I'm not counting us out.
"We have three strong pitchers, so we won't have to worry about arm fatigue at the end of the season. We have a lot of solid base-hitters. I see a lot of singles and doubles.
"We don't have the huge power hitters that we've had the past few years. But we have a lot of people who can put the bat on the ball, and we're going to be aggressive on the bases."
Early in her 11th season guiding the Eagles, Radabaugh's first task is filling the void left by four departing players who are all now playing college softball.
Standout second baseman and No. 3 hitter Eryn Simon (.425 batting average), who was a 2010 first-team All-Ohioan and a two-time City League player of the year, is now at Walsh University.
CL pitcher of the year Kasey Graham (15-3 record, 1.19 earned run average) is at Owens Community College along with second-team All-City shortstop Hallie Thompson (.333 average), and first-team All-City catcher Sarah Stibaner is playing at the University of Toledo.
"We have a lot of players working hard in the offseason," Radabaugh said of her team's ongoing success. "The kids are in the weight room, and a lot of them play travel ball in the summer. That experience makes a big difference.
"High school is a 27-game season, and the girls can play 60-plus games in the summer. They get the batting experience and the field awareness, kind of like court sense in basketball."
By all measures, the graduation losses will be tough to compensate for, especially considering that those four players batted in the Nos. 3 through 6 spots in what was one of northwest Ohio's most potent offensive lineups.
Simon and Stibaner (.330 average), the cleanup hitter, shared the CL's RBI lead with 34 apiece in 2010.
"A lot of what we've done is because of what they put into it in the summer and the offseason," Radabaugh said.
"The four girls who graduated last year that are playing in college now all played travel ball since they were little girls. They brought a lot of experience out to the field, and we're missing some of that experience right now this year, especially defensively."
But Clay will reload from the top of the lineup with two other returning first-team All-City selections and a second-team all-leaguer.
Speedy junior leadoff hitter and center fielder Kim Crawford enters her third season as a starter having been the City League's leading hitter (.500, 53-for-106) last season, and senior right fielder Danielle Holmes, a swift defender and baserunner with perhaps the area's best throwing arm, was the CL's third leading hitter (.436, 41-for-94) in 2010.
Because of a team rule, Holmes was forced to sit out the Eagles' first three games because she missed a week of preseason practice while on a family vacation.
Succeeding Graham as the Eagles' ace in the circle is senior Cassi Laberdee, who earned second-team CL honors after posting a 9-2 record and 1.22 ERA as Clay's No. 2 pitcher in 2010.
"I look for a lot of leadership on the mound from Cassi Laberdee," Radabaugh said. "Kim Crawford is our leadoff hitter and makes a lot of things happen when she gets on base, and she's on base quite a bit. Also, she covers so much ground in center field.
"Dani Holmes has the fastest bat speed of anybody on our team, and she hits the ball extremely hard. She's also very fast and has a rocket for an arm. She's very valuable wherever we put her, whether it's in right field or we bring her in to the infield. She's a huge part of our game."
Other returnees to the Clay starting lineup include seniors Kim Scharff (SS-1B), Miranda Cortez (1B-OF), and Ashley Cousino (OF), and junior Brooke Thompson (3B).
Adding pitching depth will be promising freshman Brooke Gallaher, and junior Haley Kuhlman, who will lighten the burden on Laberdee.
Gallaher, has also been Clay's two hitter through the team's first two games.
Clay ended last season with a 4-0 shutout of St. Ursula in the City championship game at Scott Park, a game that was somewhat of a consolation after a heartbreaking loss to Springfield in the D-I district final two days earlier.
"Winning the city championship gave us something positive at the end of last season," Radabaugh said.
"The loss in the district final was a tough one to take, but you can't dwell on it forever."
Radabaugh was referring to a questionable strike-three call by the plate umpire which ended the seventh inning instead of ending the game with a Clay victory.
In a memorable battle, that game had reached the seventh inning before lightning suspended play on a Friday night at Rolf Park in Maumee. The remaining six and a half innings were played there the next day.
"It was bases loaded, two outs and a full count in the bottom of the seventh and Kasey Graham was batting," Radabaugh recalled. "The pitch was around her ankles. We ended up going 13 innings and losing."
Clay had reached the regional final in 2009 before losing to eventual state champion Elyria.
The Eagles have won 20 or more games eight times in Radabaugh's prior 10 seasons, including 22-6 in 2001, 20-9 in 2002, 21-7 in 2003, 21-5 in 2006, and 23-4 in 2007.
The Eagles, who joined the CL during the 2003-04 school year, won league titles in 2006, 2007, 2009 and last year.
"There is a little pressure on them being the defending champion," Radabaugh said of this year's team.
"We almost always face the other teams' No. 1 pitchers day after day, and that's good for us. The more good pitching we can face the better prepared we are when tournament time comes around."
The Eagles have two strong nonleague tests on Saturday at the Oregon Recreation complex, when they will face top Northern Lakes League contender Southview at 1 p.m., and Greater Buckeye Conference contender Sandusky at 4 p.m.
Contact Steve Junga at: email@example.com or 419-724-6461.