After running the table in City League play en route to softball titles the last two years, Clay saw its streak of 26 consecutive wins in CL play and league playoff competition snapped last week by Notre Dame.
In the battle of Eagles, Notre Dame rallied from a 5-2 deficit in the bottom of the seventh inning to take a 6-5 home victory the CL opener.
But it is the Eagles from Oregon who remain the slight favorite of CL coaches to win their third straight championship and fifth in six seasons.
Clay received first-place votes from five league coaches, Notre Dame garnered four, and Central Catholic picked up the other two.
Whitmer was given a narrow edge for the fourth CL playoff spot over 2010 runner-up St. Ursula and Bowsher.
Clay (24-5, 11-0), which lost to Springfield in the Division I district final after reaching the regional final in 2009, reloads around seven players who were either full-time or part-time starters in 2010.
Brenda Radabaugh brought a 203-72 overall record into her 11th season as Eagles coach, and her first order of business was filling a huge void left in the middle of the lineup and infield left by the graduation of four players who are now competing in college.
Gone are Nos. 3 through 6 hitters Eryn Simon (2B, Walsh), Sarah Stibaner (catcher, Toledo), Kasey Graham (pitcher, Owens) and Hallie Thompson (SS, Owen).
Simon was a two-time CL player of the year, Graham was the CL pitcher of the year, Stibaner was also an All-City first-teamer, and Thompson was on the CL second team.
Leading the way are junior leadoff hitter and reigning CL batting champion Kim Crawford (CF, .500 average, 34 runs scored), and senior Danielle Holmes (RF, .436), who was third among league hitters. Each was All-City first team.
Senior pitcher Cassi Laberdee (9-2 record, 1.22 ERA), was All-CL second team, and senior Kim Scharff (now at SS) and junior Brooke Thompson (3B) were also regulars. Seniors Miranda Cortez (OF-1B) and Ashley Cousino (OF) split time as starters.
The top newcomer is freshman Brooke Gallaher, who is the No. 2 pitcher and a solid hitting prospect.
"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."
Notre Dame (12-12, 7-4) has five returning players, but early on coach Norm Kujawa has started three sophomores and three freshmen.
Back to lead the way are junior Katie McKenty (RF, .354), who was All-City first team, and senior Elizabeth "Bitty" Treece (C), who was a second team.
Other returnees are seniors Tayler DeBrosse (2B) and Hallie Edgell (OF), and sophomore pitcher Jenna Inman (5-8 record, 1.33 ERA). Top newcomers are freshmen Cassie Gillespie (1B-P) and Amanda Del Monte (SS).
"We're young but we're talented," Kujawa said. "We've got good team speed, I'm happy with where we are defensively, and we have some strong arms. Hitting-wise, we're a patient bunch, and we've done a good job of hitting hitter's pitches."
At Central Catholic (14-11, 8-2), much of the optimism begins in the pitching circle with junior right-hander Erin Seiler (10-9, 0.67 ERA), who had 232 strikeouts in 126 innings last season and may be the City League's best hurler. If Seiler, who also led the Irish in hitting (.339), can get some offensive support, Central could give Clay and Notre Dame a serious run.
"Erin is probably the hardest working player I have ever seen," Irish coach Larry Jaworski said. "She puts a lot of time into her game. A pitcher like her can take a lot of pressure off of your defense."
Other returning full-time starters include seniors Morgan Delp (2B), Megan Sullivan (RF) and Sara Boling (C), junior Sydney Delp (3B), and sophomore Kaitlyn Bronikowski (SS). Junior Hailey Reihling (CF) also had some starts in 2010.
If Whitmer (12-10, 8-3) is to return to the final four, the Panthers must first fill the void created by the graduation of their battery of pitcher Hayli Erdmann and catcher Stacy Sumner, plus Torrie Terry (IF-P). Terry (.426) and Sumner (.423) ranked fourth and sixth among CL hitters, and were All-City first team.
Leading a group of six returnees is All-City first-teamer Stephanie Andrews (.418), who will get help from fellow seniors Kali Davis (3B), Shelby Vierling (OF) and Katie Yates (OF), junior Taylor Derr (OF) and sophomore Shelby Swartz (SS). The new battery includes sophomores Alexis Shively (P) and Tori Weidinger (C). Five players on the 12-member varsity were on the CL junior varsity championship team last year.
"We're young, and I feel with every inning and every pitch we'll get a little better," said 16th-year coach Mark Figliomeni. "But half of our roster are freshmen and sophomores, so there's going to be a learning curve. We'll have to mature quickly."
St. Ursula (17-8, 9-2), lost All-City player Tori Allen (.459, 28 RBI) to graduation. But the Arrows also will be without senior Grace Ammons, an All-City pitcher (14-6, 2.22 ERA) who opted not to play this season.
Second-year coach Amy Muszynski will rely on three returning starters — senior Brittany Romstadt (CF) and juniors Brigette Shaw (SS) and Danielle Johnston (LF). Six of the 11 players are sophomores or freshmen.
The promising freshmen include Mary Kate Richberg (C), Emily Uhlman (P), Caroline Lewandowski (1B-CF), and Stephanie Tylicki (P-2B).
"I'm hoping we can make the top four in the City League," Muszynski said, "and our main goal is just to keep improving every day because we're very young. The key for us if we do make the top four will be solid defense and a strong offense."
Bowsher (9-10, 6-4) will rely on five returning starters, a group that includes seniors Kirby Jewell (2B), Catherine Shubert (1B) and Breann Aiken (P), junior Makayla McKinney (SS) and sophomore Amanda Stockman (OF).
"It's a rebuilding year," said second-year coach Jolene Farringer. "We lost seven seniors, so we're trying to build some character and trying to find a style of play. The key will be team unity. The girls need to learn to play as a team."
Start (4-12, 4-7) may struggle under first-year coach Jessica Temple, who inherited only two varsity players and had no players on her 14-member roster who had any prior pitching experience.
Senior Kelsea Newman, formerly a center fielder, has moved to the pitching circle, and junior Ciera Lopez (SS) is the other returnee. The top newcomers are juniors Alex McNaughton (1B-3B), Sami Kidder (3B-P), and Nicole Wagner (1B-DP). The team has just two seniors.
"We're just looking for continued improvement," Temple said. "Sometimes we struggle to stay in the game mentally. If we hit and play solid defense, we can compete. But the fact that we had no pitching experience probably limits the level at which we can compete."
Waite (6-13, 5-5) returned seven varsity starters for second-year coach Kevin Boisselle, including seniors Kelsey Kaweski (P), Chelsea Smith (C), Jenna Spencer (3B), and Amira Najjar (CF), and juniors Elicia Garces (P), Hailey Schwartz (P) and Courtney Smith (1B).
"I'm hoping we can break into the top five because some teams are down this year and the pitching mound is moved back [from 40 to 43 feet]," said Boisselle, who was previously an assistant coach. "We're hitting the ball a lot better than we have in previous years. The key for us will be defense."
Rogers (3-17, 3-8) returns six players, including senior twin sisters Rebecca Modrowski (3B-C) and Renee Modrowski (2B), juniors Samantha Kelley (3B-SS-C-P), Daisy Minnfield (1B), and Natasha Dupree (P-SS), and sophomore Callie Stull (LF-P).
"We have the potential to be in the running, but our team just lacks confidence right now," said third-year coach Kelli Short. "They've shown the ability, we need to cut back on our errors and mental mistakes."
At Scott (2-14, 1-10), the main goal is to stay competitive, according to second-year coach Kyle Clark.
That mission should be made a bit easier with six returning players, plus three transfers who had experience at the former Libbey High School. Back to lead the way are seniors Essence Jones (P-C), Meisha Turner (3B-P), Blossom Mitchell (P-C), and Elizabeth Graves (SS-C), and junior Shannon Woods (2B-SS).
"Our program is expanding," Clark said. "We have 16 on the varsity and 13 on JV. Twelve of our varsity players are seniors. I'm definitely looking to improve from last year."
Woodward (1-11, 1-9) has also improved on program numbers under 20th-year coach Dan Smith, who has 10 varsity players and a 15-member JV squad.
Leading the group of nine varsity returnees are senior Julie Bitter (C), junior Jazlyn Meyers (1B), and sophomores Marion Hester (P-RF), Ricca Turner (P-LF) and Aniqua Winters (2B). Brittany Walker (C-LF) is a promising freshman talent.
"I think we're going to win a few games," Smith said. "Everybody we have played last year. We're still pretty young. Our pitchers got some [instructional] help in the summer, and the infield has worked hard."
Contact Steve Junga at: email@example.com or 419-724-6461.