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Another tight race is expected in the Northern Lakes League, which has become one of the most respected softball conferences in the state.
Four of the area's elite teams — Southview, Perrysburg, Anthony Wayne, and Springfield — are expected to battle it out for the title.
Anthony Wayne is the defending champ, having lost just twice in league play last year. The Generals have won or shared four of the last five NLL titles and six of the last 10. But AW lost four key hitters to graduation, including ace pitcher Dani Haley.
Springfield made the first trip to the state semifinals in school history last season where the Blue Devils lost to eventual state champion Massillon Perry. But Springfield lost pitcher Ashyln Michalak along with three other top hitters.
Southview and Perrysburg return the top hurlers. The Cougars received four first place votes in a poll of league coaches to get the nod as the favorites. Southview, which last won an NLL championship in 2004, is led by senior pitcher Olivia O'Reilly, who had a 1.18 ERA and had 184 strikeouts in 119 innings in 2010.
"The NLL is very tough, top to bottom," Southview coach Jim Zoltowski said. "We can't overlook any team. It should be very interesting to see how this year shakes out."
Perrysburg got two first-place votes with senior Lindsay Rich back on the mound after leading the league with a 0.70 ERA. She fanned 146 batters in 90 1/3 innings.
"With the returning players across the league this could be a very exciting year," Perrysburg coach Ryan DeMars said. "Lindsay Rich on the mound in my mind gives Perrysburg the edge, but Olivia O'Reilly and [Anthony Wayne's Emily] Kurfis will be very tough. Springfield graduated their ace, but coach Rob Gwozdz will have his kids in every game, and their young pitchers are good. The NLL will once again be tough."
Anthony Wayne and Springfield each also received one first-place vote.
"The league race will be the usual dog fight that turns into a marathon. We have a lot of talent in our league," AW veteran coach Carolyn Vogtsberger said. "I feel like we're deep all the way through."
Springfield, Perrysburg, and Southview all tied for second last season.
"As always the NLL is hands down one of the toughest leagues in Ohio," Springfield coach Rob Gwozdz said. "We expect to complete for a league championship but realize nothing comes easy in the league."
Further proof of the parity was made clear during the NLL openers on Monday. Both Perrysburg and Southview lost their first conference games. The Yellow Jackets lost 5-1 to Anthony Wayne and Springfield beat the Cougars 3-2.
"The NLL is considered over the last five years to be the strongest conference top to bottom in Ohio," Maumee coach Jim Hall said. "No rest for the weary, you play everyone twice, and there's nowhere to hide."
Southview (20-8 overall, 10-4 last year) had a solid season in Zoltowski's first season, and he has six starters and four seniors back.
O'Reilly (P/1B) got it done on the mound (13-6) and at the plate (NLL best .481 average). Senior Emily Estrich (P/CF) had 55 strikeouts and she hit .284.
Juniors Julia Mouch (3B) and Molly Gast (1B) will be counted on offensively and defensively. Sophomore Jess Knepper returns behind the plate.
Zoltowski said 10 out of 11 players have competed at the varsity level.
"We're three deep in pitching with O'Reilly, Estrich, and Ali Howard," he said. "We have great team chemistry and the desire to compete at the highest level."
But with only 11 players the Cougars must stay healthy.
Perrysburg (22-6, 10-4) has seven starters returning.
Rich had an 11-2 record and also had a .398 average with three homers and 21 RBIs. Junior Kimmy Granata (C) hit .313 with three homers and 21 RBIs. Junior Cammy Messenger (RF) had a .376 average with 19 RBIs. Junior Ty Wilson (LF) finished with a .296 average and nine stolen bases. Senior shortstop Tori Plummer was the team's top defensive player.
"Pitching and defense will be extremely tough on the opposition," DeMars said. "With seven starters back we are very experienced."
He said the biggest area of concern is sustained success at the plate.
"Last year we started strong offensively, but fizzled in the latter part of the season," he said.
Springfield (22-7, 10-4) has an overall record of 168-78 in 10 seasons under Gwozdz.
Among 12 players are four seniors and six returning starters.
Senior Patrece Gibson (SS) batted .312, with 13 RBIs and six stolen bases. Junior Emily Rockman (1B) had a .438 average with 22 RBIs and two homers. Senior Cailyn Cordrey (3B) batted .305 with 22 RBIs and six doubles. Junior Marisa Shipman (CF) had a .282 average with 15 RBIs and two home runs. Junior catcher Sarah Philippi drove in 10 runs last year.
"We have strong leadership from our upperclassmen," Gwozdz said. "From experience we know what it takes to win especially in close ball games."
But he starts two freshmen pitchers, and he thinks they both have "tons of potential and a huge upside." Inexperience in the outfield besides Shipman could be a concern.
Anthony Wayne (27-4, 12-2) has won four outright titles in the last 10 years.
Veteran coach Carolyn Vogtsberger entered her 18th season at the helm with 333 career wins.
Senior pitcher Emily Kurfis is a four-year varsity player. Other returning starters are: senior Sarah Bores (CF), senior Nicole Del Monte (LF), Jamie Westenkirchner (1B), senior Marie Hoffman (2B), junior Marisa Shook (RF), and junior Brianna Megyesi (SS).
Kurfis had a 1.77 ERA with 118 strikeouts in 83 innings. Bores batted .380 with 18 RBIs. Del Monte hit .333 with 19 RBIs. Westenkirchner has started the season with 10 hits in 17 at-bats (.588).
Vogtsberger said her team is solid in all areas with depth.
"We have our seven returners who have valuable experience," she said. "We have good team chemistry. I am extremely excited about our season."
Maumee (11-14, 2-12) has 13 players including eight letter winners, and seven returning starters.
But the Panthers lost Devann Sund (P/OF) for the season with an ACL injury.
Coach Jim Hall, who enters his fifth season, cites solid team defense and team chemistry as strengths. But he said possible concerns are depth and hitting consistently.
Senior Alexis O'Hair (P/OF) had a 3.22 ERA last year. Senior Bre Wojnarowski (SS) had a .290 batting average. Other top returnees include senior Becki Hayes (3B/C), senior Mareshah Scott (CF) and senior Katie Butler (1B).
Sophomores Bailee Patterson and Kendall Murphy have looked good early.
"We are looking to fight our way into the top four in the NLL," Hall said. "Competing in the Division-I dominated NLL has been a challenge."
Bowling Green (12-14, 7-7) looks to be much improved in Jim Cress's second season.
The returning starters are: seniors Kara Maxey (3B) and Allie Smith (LF), juniors Casey Akenberger (P) and Hayley Williford (C), and sophomore Kristi Eikenbery (2B).
"We have the majority of our infield back including our pitcher and catcher," Cress said. "Defense will be our strength, but our offensive capabilities are improving daily."
Yet he has only five returning players.
"Overall we're seeing continuous improvement," Cress said. "We feel we have the ability to compete and do very well in the league."
Northview (9-17, 4-8) will be led by senior Aubrianna Schroeder (3B), senior Ashley Yeager (2B), and junior Katie Perkins (CF). Two promising freshmen, Lori Myer (SS) and Cassisdy Ghesquire (LF), join the lineup.
The Wildcats have a solid infield, with experience. But the pitching is inexperienced with freshman Brianna Quinones.
"We have a freshmen class with a great deal of talent," coach Steve Kyle said. "I expect the lessons we learn this year to be of great value as the season progresses."
Rossford (8-17, 1-13) is in its final season in the NLL.
Coach Tom Kralovic, who is in his 10th season, has two seniors — Cassidy Gauthier (C), who hit .341, and Makayla McGee (SS) who hit .267. Junior Abby Stahl will be the No. 1 pitcher.
Kralovic said defense will be a strength, but the Bulldogs are young and have to understand the intensity needed in the NLL.
"I expect to compete every night," he said. "We need to win our home games and steal some games on the road."
Contact Mark Monroe at: email@example.com or 419-724-6354.