There’s plenty of returning talent on offer on the local softball season after four Howard County schools posted winning records and two — Western and Eastern — put up 20-win seasons. Now, a lot of veteran players return, as do all five coaches, as the teams look for more wins, and the postseason hardware which eluded county schools last season.
Below are looks at the five county squads.
The Panthers return a potent offensive squad from the team that went 21-6 last season and won the Hoosier Conference after topping Benton Central in the HC’s championship game.
They flexed their muscle in a pair of season-opening victories the week before spring break.
“We were really fortunate to get those two games in prior to break,” Western coach Jim Clouse said. “We aren’t always able to get those in, and against very talented teams. Eastern at the time was ranked 10th, Madison-Grant was fifth, both in 2A, both solid teams, both with solid pitching. To get a couple wins under our belt, we are excited to get going.”
The Panther lineup features a pair of heavy hitters who split time between pitching and playing first: sophomore Kylie Miller and junior Chloe Linn. Miller hit a team-best .446 and collected 12 doubles and four triples. Linn hit .407 with team-highs of 13 doubles and seven homers. They shared the team lead with 30 RBIs each.
Junior Sienna Stone is another first base/pitching/outfield option. Junior Chloe Hunt is starting her third year at second base after hitting .359 with 20 runs. Senior Kieli Fogg is at shortstop (.246 batting average). Junior Braylee Acord (.361) and freshman Jocelyn Jeffers are third base/DH options. Senior Kyndal Mellady returns to catcher after missing last season due to injury. Sophomore Lexi Dollens is another catching option after filling in for Mellady last season.
Returning to center field is senior Maisy Harlow (.367, 25 runs). Sophomore Kami Garber is in right (.325). And in left is freshman Brynley Erb. Freshman Rylynn Gibbs can take second base and also sub in as a runner. Sophomore Emma Roe will also see time as a runner.
“I think offense will be one of our strengths,” Clouse said. “We do return a considerable amount of offense, and then we’ve added a couple freshmen to that group that are extremely talented on the offensive side of the ball for sure.
“We return Maisy Harlow, we return Braylee Acord, who had a good bat last year, Chloe Linn, Chloe Hunt — all of those girls return from the starting lineup last year. And then we added offensively Brynley Erb, who her first two varsity at-bats were home runs in the Eastern game, and then Jocelyn Jeffers, who carries a big bat as well.”
In the circle, Miller and Linn are the primary pitchers. Miller had a 2.10 ERA in a team-high 63 1/3 innings with a team-best 60 strikeouts and 6-2 record. Linn had a 3.12 ERA in 49 1/3 innings with 54 strikeouts and a 9-2 record. Erb and Roe are further pitching options.
The Panthers beat Northwestern twice in the conference season, but fell to the Tigers in a high-scoring sectional semifinal.
“We had a great season last year,” Clouse said. “We won the conference for the first time since we’ve been in the Hoosier Conference. We won the Cancer Classic up in Mishawaka, which was the first time we’d ever won that. But we had a sour taste in our mouth when we walked out of the sectional after losing last year.
“We have the ability to [win the sectional]. We have kids returning who have that sour taste in their mouth and that’s one of their goals. If we play as a team and gel together we have the potential to make a run in the tournament.”
Western is in a Class 3A sectional with Frankfort, North Montgomery, Northwestern, Twin Lakes and West Lafayette.
The Panthers (3-0) play their HC opener today at Tipton.
The Comets return the bulk of their squad from a 20-6-1 squad. While some are moving to new positions, the Comets expect a seasoned squad to be an advantage. At the top of the list is ace starter Macy Coan.
“Returning Macy Coan is huge for our team,” Eastern coach Carly Shively said. “She carried us on the mound last year, finishing the season with 275 strikeouts and a 1.24 ERA. We are expecting big things from her this year. She’s got a solid defensive lineup backing her up. We lost two seniors last year and we have returned almost everyone else.
“Having several returning starters this year will help us get back into the swing of things offensively and defensively. We have the fortunate situation to build off what we’ve learned last year and continue to get better.”
Four seniors return, including the battery. Catcher Cassidy Keene is the cleanup hitter and may also get some infield time at third or first. The Eastern career leader in homers, Keene led Eastern in six categories — .439 average, 36 hits, 30 runs, 29 RBIs, seven homers, and 12 doubles. Coan (.351) is a key batter in addition to her pitching duties.
Two more seniors are returning from injuries which ruled them out in 2022: First baseman Allison Delgado, who is also a pitching option; and senior right fielder Adalyn Downing.
Juniors include leadoff hitter and center fielder Kendall Wilson (.350, 20 runs, 18 RBIs), second baseman Maggie Johnson (.277), DH Aubree Pearce, and first baseman and pitcher Kenzie DeGraaff.
Sophomores are third baseman/catcher Marly Coan (.325, 25 runs, 23 RBIs, six homers), left fielder Katie Hendricks, and runner Madison Wyrick. The freshman class includes shortstop Emillia Andrews, another leadoff option, and utility player Elle Winger.
The Comets went 6-2 in the Hoosier Heartland Conference last season.
“We’ve put a lot of offseason work in, and we are really pushing to apply that,” Shively said. “Early season games come with a lot of learning experiences, but we are willing to take these moments to learn and grow to be best prepared for the end of our season. Of course, we want to win every game, but we are finding the importance in learning and applying what we’ve learned in order to achieve our biggest goal, which is to win the last game we play.”
Eastern, which lost to Madison-Grant in a Class 2A sectional final last year, is in a Class 2A sectional with Blackford, Eastbrook, Elwood, M-G and Taylor
• The Comets (1-1) beat Maconaquah 6-0 Tuesday with Coan throwing a complete-game one-hitter and striking out 19. Andrews led the offense, going 3 for 3. Marly Coan and Delgado also had hits.
Eastern’s next game is today at Oak Hill.
The Tigers graduated five everyday batters from the lineup, including their top four hitters, from a 15-8 team that went 6-2 in the HC. Several players return, but some are moving to new spots defensively. Tiger coach Chris Walker said the squad is probably the least-experienced in his tenure.
“There’s only probably three, maybe four that played positions that they typically play,” Walker said.
The changes are to make the Tigers as strong as they can be defensively, but that will take time.
“I think we’ll be OK defensively,” Walker said. “We’ll probably struggle at the beginning, which is kind of typical. I definitely think they have the capability of getting better as they get used to the new positions they’ll be playing.
“Hitting-wise, if they improve like they did last year, the returners, they’ll be fine.”
Senior shortstop Kate Graves is the likely leadoff hitter after hitting .355 last season. Senior Bailey Henry is a third baseman and pitcher after hitting .350 and leading the team with 24 RBIs, 31 runs, 11 doubles, and 16 extra-base hits. Freshman Bailey Marcus will also pitch or play third base, and can also take first base. Sophomore Kendal Ziems is in center field (.246). Freshman Tessa Ortman is the catcher.
Sophomore Oliveah Johns returns to an outfield spot, taking right. Junior Ella Barnett also returns to the outfield, taking left. Sophomore Caitlyn Pounds is moving to second base. And Junior Aubree Braden is at first base in her first season of high school softball.
Looking to mix in are junior Kelsie Avery and freshmen Maci Rody and Jayda Shanks.
Marcus is slotted as the No. 1 pitcher. “We’re going to be counting on her a lot in the pitching category,” Walker said. Henry is likely the No. 2 pitcher. Freshman Hailey Jordan will also get innings.
“Really, experience-wise we’re not going to have a lot of experience, so [the goal is] just to get better game by game, learn from mistakes, don’t make the same mistakes twice,” Walker said.
Northwestern (0-2) is at HC rival Cass today. The Tigers, who lost in the sectional final last season to Benton Central, are now in a Class 3A sectional with Frankfort, North Montgomery, Twin Lakes, West Lafayette and Western.
The Wildkats finished 13-12 last season and 4-2 in the NCC. They’ll lean on an emerging offense and infield defense as they look to make a bigger impact this season.
“I think we have a chance to be really successful,” Kokomo coach Mike Susong said. “This group is skilled. I think we’re going to score some runs. I think we’ll be really good defensively in the infield. Outfield is all new and if we can make the routine plays there, I think as long as our pitching holds up, we’ll be pretty successful.
“Our bats are strong. It’s making sure we don’t give up free runs to our opponents — make them earn everything that they get.”
The offense starts with senior shortstop and leadoff hitter Kami Shoemaker. She hit .375 last season with 26 runs, eight doubles and 11 steals. Susong said she’s aiming for Kokomo’s career record in steals. Sophomore Kinley Martin is at third base. She hit .386 with a co-team-beat 30 runs, 27 RBIs, 10 doubles and a team-high eight homers. Junior Liliana Lamberson is at second base.
At first are junior Gwen Hand (.394 batting average, 18 RBIs) and freshman Amirah Marciniak, two of the pitchers who will take the field when not in the circle. The catcher is junior Jordan Thatcher, an Indiana State commit. She batted .333 with 22 RBIs and 11 extra-base hits last season.
The outfield is a work in progress. Likely candidates are senior Kenzie Huckeby, who can also play infield, junior Dani Tate, and junior Taylor Reed, who can also take first base and pitch. Two more options for outfield play are juniors Alyseea Thompson and Halle Helmberger.
Three players who may split varsity and JV are junior first baseman/outfielder Betsy Tweed, sophomore catcher/outfielder Brooklyn Brock, and freshman catcher/first baseman/outfielder Marli Redfern.
“I think our infield defensively is definitely a strength, but one of our biggest strengths are our bats,” Susong said. “We’ve got some speed and some power, which is a nice combination to have. We’re going to have that all throughout the lineup, and I think we’re going to have some tough outs.”
Carly Patterson, last year’s top pitcher, is unavailable to play and is a team manager this season. Hand logged the next-most innings with 54 2/3 and Susong has high hopes for her if she’s able to limit walks. Reed had an ERA of 3.23 in 21 2/3 innings with 20 strikeouts and Susong expects to use her more this season. And Marciniak should see innings.
“Looking at our schedule, we feel like if we play well, that we can have a really good season,” Susong said. “We need to limit our mistakes and limit our free passes to the other teams and if we do that I think our bats and our defense will take care of us.
“Obviously we always want to compete for a conference and sectional championship. Those are two of our goals. And [winning] 20 games is something we would like to accomplish. Can we accomplish that? Yes. Can we also be .500? Yes. So it’s going to come down to those games in the middle as to how we perform and ho we gel as a team.”
The Kats (1-0) host Class 4A state runner-up Harrison today. Kokomo is in a Class 4A sectional with Harrison, Lafayette Jeff, Logansport and McCutcheon.
The Titans have 10 players on the squad and aim for an improved season after going 4-15 last spring and 3-4 in the HHC. Several experienced players return, including primary pitchers Miranda Saldana and Jadyn Underwood.
Titan coach Robert McGuire said that experience is “very nice, because I had a lot of young players last year that had never seen the quality of pitching that they saw last year. You’ve got pitchers from Rossville and pitchers from Eastern — some top-notch pitchers. These pitchers can put that ball anywhere they want and these girls came into [the season] as freshmen. They came in there seeing pitching that they’d never seen before.
“Hopefully this year, because Miranda’s really come along, these batters are seeing her and Jadyn almost every practice, so hopefully they’ll step in being the second year, that nervousness and shakiness is gone and they can step to the plate and be that solid hitting that I need.”
Saldana is the team’s lone senior. She’s the No. 1 pitcher and will play first when not pitching. She hit .318 last year and had an ERA of 6.17 in 36 innings. Uderwood, a junior, is the No. 2 pitcher and another key batter. She hit .426 with a team-high 19 RBIs and 13 steals.
The junior class also includes shortstop Jo Glaze, McGuire’s coach on the field (.370 batting average last season), and outfielder Abigail Bentley. Sophomores are catcher Lilly Spane, center fielder Ma’Leigha Smith, outfielder MaKynzi Reed, and outfielder Makenna Hemsoth, a Kokomo move-in.
Freshmen are second baseman Kyanna Haynes and third baseman Emma Lees, an expected impact player who is a move-in from Western.
“I’ve got great leaders,” McGuire said. “I’ve got some upperclassmen that I think are going to do great things. They seem to have their heads on straight and can pull the team in together. And a big strength is my two freshmen coming in. They’re going to fill in the gap right away.
“Last year my strength was at the lineup 1 through 5, where as this year I can probably go deeper into my lineup being strong.”
The Titans hope that pays dividends.
“We sat down and I told them we needed to think about our goals for the year,” McGuire said. “We want to have at least a winning season this year and we want to win a sectional game. My goal as a coach is I want to win the sectional. We’ve got the pitching to do it. But our sectional is a very strong sectional. We’ve got Madison-Grant, some dynamite teams.”
The Titans open at Peru on Monday. Taylor is in a Class 2A sectional with Blackford, Eastbrook, Eastern, Elwood and Madison-Grant.