KNOX COUNTY – High school softball season is officially underway in Ohio.
Each Knox County team comes into the 2019 campaign with different expectations, and different questions to answer. Will Mount Vernon make a state run? Can Fredericktown and Danville compete for a KMAC title? Will Centerburg and East Knox gain ground after finishing near the bottom of the conference in 2018?
This season preview will outline where each county team stands as the season gets underway.
Trojans aim for consistent improvement in 2019
Centerburg won eight games last year, which was a marked improvement over its two wins during head coach Tim Rioux’s first season. The Trojans will look to continue that positive momentum this spring behind an experienced roster, as only one senior graduated from last year’s team.
The Trojans will be led by Noa Sesma, a junior third baseman who earned first-team all-KMAC honors last season after finishing second in the conference with six home runs. Sesma also recorded a .575 batting average in 2018 (she earned first-team all-conference honors her freshman year, too).
She’ll be flanked by sophomore shortstop Amelia Smith, a second-team all-KMAC selection last year, who led Centerburg with 28 RBIs and is one of the team’s best defensive players.
There will be a balanced mix of upper and underclassmen on the roster this year, Rioux said, as the varsity team features two seniors (Zoe Huber and Mackenzie Davis) and three promising freshmen (Chloe Goulter, Allie Beekman, Kaitlyn Tenzos). The program is still young – 17 of the 23 players are freshmen or sophomores – but Rioux believes the buy-in is growing.
“We’ll be young again this year, but we have a better mix of seniors, juniors, sophomores and freshmen,” Rioux said. “We have a pretty good mix, where we’d like to be every year, so we’ve kind of got that.”
Rioux said this year is about “raising expectations” within the program. Centerburg won just one conference game last year, and Rioux believes this year’s team has a far higher ceiling.
“We had some good points last year, won some games that were good wins for us. We had a lead in probably close to half our games, we ended up losing the lead,” Rioux said. “We lost some close games. But again, the kids have to learn how to win. That’s one of the biggest things we have to do.”
Centerburg has improved in all facets of the game this offseason – pitching, hitting, baserunning and defense – Rioux said, but he is remaining conservative with expectations. In a conference like the KMAC, every game is a battle.
“It’s tough when we play seven teams in our conference that could beat a lot of D-I schools,” he said with a chuckle. “So our goal is to be competitive every game. I mean, really, that’s probably our number one goal, to be competitive in every game.”
Danville eyes deep tournament run after disappointing 2018 finish
Last May, Danville came one game short of its second state semifinal appearance in three years. Replete with experience and talent, this year’s team will look to make it back to Akron.
Danville welcomes back eight of its nine starters from last year’s team, including ace pitcher Sammie Lavender and catcher Kaitlyn Briggs, who earned first-team all-KMAC honors last year. Lavender, who recently signed to play college softball at Ohio Christian University, pitched in all six of Danville’s postseason games last year. She finished the season with 12 wins and a 3.15 ERA in 19 appearances.
Briggs, who signed to play with the University of Findlay, batted .500 and recorded a team-high 45 hits last year. She’ll be flanked by fellow first-team all-conference selection McKinley Alberts, who hit .479 and tied Briggs’s hit mark. CeCe Newbold, the team’s home run leader, is back this year as well.
The Blue Devils graduated Taylor Duncan, another first-team all-KMAC honoree from last year’s team. The second baseman was one of Danville’s most consistent defenders and currently plays at Cleveland State.
Head coach Jill Lyons said her team used last year’s 11-5 regional semifinal loss to Strasburg-Franklin as motivation this offseason. Lyons believes the team “didn’t play to our potential” in last year’s final game.
“It’s not like we threw it in the girls’ faces by any means, but we just talk about, like, ‘Listen, if we want to be better than what we were last year, here are things that we need to work on,’” Lyons said. “And so it definitely has helped with our mindset for this year.”
Last year, Danville finished third in the KMAC, three games behind co-champs Cardington and Highland. The Blue Devils plan to use their tough conference slate to prepare for another postseason run.
“We want to be competitive in our league and we want to upset these teams and give them a run for their money, but also respecting and knowing that the outcome doesn’t determine our postseason run, it only makes us better,” Lyons said.
“We want to upset and we want to surprise, but we want to compete. We want to improve and get better and be in situations that are going to make us better for the postseason run.”
Bulldogs look to rebuild behind experienced core
East Knox will seek daily improvement under first-year head coach Homer Simmons this spring. The Bulldogs, who won just four games in 2018, will be without graduated senior Alexis McKee, who led the team offensively and defensively last season. McKee was the team’s starting pitcher, tallying four wins, 43 strikeouts and a 5.39 ERA. At the plate, she led the team in home runs with three.
The Bulldogs will lean on their experience to make strides in McKee’s absence this year. There are six seniors on the team, including infielder Abby Bailey, left-fielder Abby Farmer and first baseman Mya Gonsalves.
Junior Hallie Rine, the Bulldogs’ lone first-team all-conference representative last season, is back at center field. Rine is a lefty slap-hitter who led the team in batting average (.507), runs (24) and stolen bases (15) in 2018.
“We’re real happy to have her back, she’s going to be really good this year,” Simmons said of Rine, who will bat at the top of the order. “She’s going to steal a lot of bases this year when she gets on. She’s very tough to get out when she gets the bunt down.”
Cami Bailey, a sophomore, earned second-team all-KMAC honors last year. She led the team in RBIs (24) and will return for the Bulldogs this spring as well.
With just two underclassmen on the varsity roster, Simmons views this year as an opportunity for the program to utilize its experience and regain competitiveness in the conference. East Knox lost several close KMAC games last year, including two to Fredericktown by one run apiece. This year, Simmons said, is about bridging that gap.
“We had great potential, it just seemed like a lot of times in those games, we lost a lot of them by close margins,” Simmons said of last year’s team. “And it just seemed like we made a mistake, an error here or there, that really cost us last year.
“We’re just basically looking to get better every single day. And I think if you have that mindset that you just take the field, you learn, get better every day, then the wins will start coming.”
Coming off fourth-place finish, Freddies seek KMAC title in 2019
Fredericktown posed as a serious challenger to the KMAC’s brass in head coach Montana Huvler’s second season.
The Freddies were one of two teams to steal a win from Cardington, the conference champs, and they also split with traditional powerhouse Danville. Fredericktown finished fourth in a conference loaded with talent. This year, Huvler believes her team has the skill and experience to take the next step.
“Last season, we didn’t end up where we thought we were going to be. Fourth, to us, was a little bit of a hard pill to swallow. But I think our girls handled it in a really good manner in preparation for this coming season,” Huvler said.
Fredericktown is gunning for its first KMAC championship this spring.
The Freddies will be led by first-team all-conference selection Ashlee Montalvo, who led the team in batting average (.554), home runs (7), RBIs (31) and runs scored (26) last season.
Senior Morgan Mowery will start alongside Montalvo at pitcher this season after recording six wins and a 4.2 ERA last year. Mowery was the team’s No. 2 option at the circle in 2018, as Fredericktown graduated starter Alexis Stringfellow, who led the team in strikeouts (46) and wins (10). Stringfellow registered a 3.40 ERA last spring.
In the batter’s box, Fredericktown returns several key hitters from last year’s roster. Junior outfielder Aria Hoeflich, who hit .538 and struck out just six times last season, is back. Sophomore Sydney Sansom will return for her second year as the team’s starting catcher, coming off an impressive freshman campaign where she batted .349.
Huvler believes her team has the offensive firepower to hang with the conference’s top dogs. It’s the defense that will need to improve if her team wants to contend for a title.
“I think where we fall short is always when it comes to errors. We get that intensity and we can turn it in the right direction. It always falls (on) the opposite side of the coin for us right now,” Huvler said. “That’s definitely our main focus – staying relaxed and keeping our composure and not getting rushed, and not making those errors.”
With the majority of its roster back, Fredericktown will aim for new heights this season.
“It simply comes down to their mindset every single day,” Huvler said. “Do we want to take one step forward or two steps back? And doing what we’ve always done isn’t going to get us that one step forward. We have to find that next level mentally, and that next level physically, to get us to where we can compete at the top level. And I expect that our girls are going to dig in and eat that up.”
Talented Yellow Jackets ready to embark on revenge tour
By all accounts, 2018 was a landmark year for Mount Vernon. The Yellow Jackets went undefeated in OCC play and won the conference title. Coach Mike Marcum won ‘Coach of the Year,’ pitcher Hope Straight won ‘Player of the Year,’ and teammate Macee Marcum won ‘Pitcher of the Year’ in the conference.
The Jackets took care of their own conference, sure. But the team’s 2019 motto, ‘Unfinished Business,’ has to do with what happened after conference play, when Mount Vernon fell to Gahanna Lincoln in the district final by three runs, cutting what could have been a state run short.
“Last year was a bit of a disappointment, as well as we did,” Mike Marcum said. “We did expect to go a little bit farther and we fell a bit short in the district finals. I felt like we were a better team than having to stop there, but this is a game (where) that stuff happens.”
This year, the Jackets return nine of their 10 all-conference selections from last spring. Since last May’s disappointing finish, Straight has signed with Ohio State, Marcum has signed with Cleveland State, and junior Bryn Elliott has signed with Walsh University. Senior Megan Pentz has committed to Mount Vernon Nazarene and Carlena Fiorilli has verbaled to Cleveland State.
“We returned everybody this year and then added one to the varsity team,” Mike Marcum said, “so we should be as strong or stronger than last year.”
This year’s team has its sights set on redemption. Straight is coming off an injury-ridden junior year where she still managed to hit 22 home runs (one short of a single-season state record) and record a team-high 59 RBIs. Straight will return to the circle this spring after a torn labrum limited her pitching opportunities last season. She is the two-time defending OCC Player of the Year.
Marcum tallied 61 hits last year, ranking fourth in the state in that category. The D-I commit led the team with a .535 batting average last year and struck out just four times in 114 at-bats. She will split time with Straight on the circle this season.
Pentz hit .414 last year, driving in 29 runs, and the lightning-quick Elliott batted .450. Only one of Mount Vernon’s regular starters hit below .300 last year – Savvy Blubaugh (.256) – and even she tallied three home runs and 18 RBIs.
“We can hit. I mean, top to bottom, they’re scary,” Marcum said. “Any one of them can hit a ball out. So that’s probably our biggest threat is our offense, but we do have good defense, too.”
Mount Vernon will receive everyone’s best shot in the OCC this season. Past that, the central district is sure to be tough once again. But the Yellow Jackets will certainly be in the mix, and after last season’s early exit, this experienced squad is hungry to make it further.
Is it ‘state or bust’ for Mount Vernon this spring? “I hate to put a tag on it like that,” said Marcum, noting the amount of pressure his team already puts on itself. “But we have talked about it, I’m not going to lie to you.”
“That’s something we would certainly like to hang in the gym, you know, as a feather, if you will. But I wouldn’t say, ‘state or bust’ kind of thing,” Marcum continued. “There’s a lot of good teams out there and we just need to play within ourselves and do what we need to do.”