With six starters returning from a team that went 24-12 overall, Bedford is optimistic about repeating as Southeastern Conference’s Red Division softball champions.
The Mules, who may get their strongest challenge from Saline and Monroe, are led by senior pitcher/first baseman Hannah Stewart, who last season batted .344 and was 6-6 in her limited role in the pitching circle.
Also back in the starting lineup are juniors Abby Pirrone (shortstop), Makayla Burtscher (center field), Danielle Hafner (catcher), and Hannah Foreman (pitcher), and sophomore Jaycie Swick (second base, .333).
“We’re going to be strong and definitely should be one of the front-runners in the SEC again. Hopefully, we can win the district again like we did in 2011,” Bedford third-year coach Chelsey Labadie said.
“We expect that our strong defense keeps us in the game, and our hitting will make the difference this year. If we do hit, we should do well.”
Blissfield (21-15, 5-5) is likely to struggle in the Lenawee County Athletic Association this season with only one returning starter, two other letter winners, and no seniors included on its 14-player roster.
Second-year coach Chad Abbott looks to rebuild around junior daughter Kelsie Abbott (pitcher/third base), the only starter, and fellow juniors Megan Sheldon (third base/first base) and Kaytlin Martinez (outfield), who also saw some varsity action in 2012.
But the Royals are only two years removed from reaching the Division 3 state quarterfinals, and coach Abbott is hoping to develop his young group to make another solid run next season. Helping the cause will be junior shortstop Hannah Williams, a transfer from defending LCAA champion Dundee, which should contend for the 2013 title with Ida.
“We’re going to be very young, and we have no JV team,” coach Abbott said. “We could start four freshmen, so we’ll have some bumps at the start of the season. But I expect we’ll be playing well by the end of the season. It’s a building year.”
In a similar position in the LCAA is Erie Mason (22-12, 5-5), which graduated seven starters.
Deanna Vanderpool, in her seventh year back (11th overall) as head coach, will look for leadership from three returning starters — seniors Jaylynn McGarry (pitcher/third base) and Cheyenne Hernandez (shortstop) and junior Andrea Woodward (pitcher/first base). Showing promise have been juniors Megan Provencher (outfield) and Sarah Liedel (outfield) and freshman Morgan Stark (catcher).
“We have probably five solid players right now, and after that we’re kind of inexperienced,” Vanderpool said. “We’re trying different people in different spots, and trying to see who comes through.
“The key for us is going to be getting good pitching, solid defense, and timely hitting.”
The Tri-County Conference has arguably been Michigan strongest small-school league in recent years, with defending champion Clinton winning the past two Division 3 state titles and fellow powerhouse Summerfield winning Division 4 state championships in 2010 and 2011 before settling for a state runner-up finish last year.
Part of that landscape remains the same this season, as Clinton is favored to win the TCC title. Summerfield, however, is expected to be in a rebuilding mode “for the first time in two decades,” according to 21st-year coach Robert Taylor (496-149 career record).
The Bulldogs (95-15 from 2010-12) graduated pitching ace Emily Puterbaugh, who was a big part of the state-final teams. Several other players expected to return from the 2012 team chose not to come out this season. This left Summerfield with only 12 players in its program, which was also a state runner-up in 2006 and a state semifinalist in 2007.
Back to help the Bulldogs are his Nos. 1 and 2 batters, returning senior all-staters Olivia Ostrosky (shortstop) and Shelby Bruckner (third base/catcher), who will team up to help fill the pitching void. Also back in the lineup are junior Leah Puterbaugh, who will move from the outfield to first base, and sophomore Sydney Spalding (second base/catcher).
Senior Nicole Denman saw some varsity action in 2012, and junior Caleigh Elliott returns to action after missing last season with a fractured leg.
“Our program is currently experiencing a legitimate rebuilding era,” Taylor said. “We do not have a feeder program, so if a few players choose not to play, as with any school our size, it will have an adverse effect.”
Whiteford (16-14 overall) is likely to compete with Clinton for the TCC title.
Under longtime coach Kris Hubbard, the Bobcats are striving to return to the program’s glory days of the 1980s. The team reached the Division 4 state quarterfinals as recently as 2009, but Hubbard coached the Bobcats to state titles in 1984, 1985, and 1987, and to state runner-up finishes in 1988 and 1994.
This year’s squad will count on six returning starters, including seniors Jordan Kiefer (pitcher) and Bailey Spindler (catcher), junior Emily Ritzenthaler (shortstop), and sophomores Janie Bunge (second base), Kaleigh Funchion (center field), and Bridgette Stone (first base).
“Hopefully we can challenge for the title, but Clinton will be very strong again,” Hubbard said. “We can pitch and play defense, but we will have to be able to score some runs to compete for the title.”
Contact Steve Junga at: email@example.com, 419-724-6461 or on Twitter@JungaBlade.