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Softball preview: Flip a coin — Is Howard or Glenelg the county's top team?

Little more than a week ago, it was pretty easy for most county softball pundits to predict who'd be the county champion by the middle of May.

After all, Howard has the best pitching combo — Kensey O'Neill and Samantha O'Connor — and five returning all-county players. The Lions not only won the league title last May, but were a runner-up in the state playoffs.

On paper Howard looked good. Really good. And still does.

But Glenelg has given the pundits pause. With Ciara Davis' stunning, two-out home run in the bottom of the seventh, Glenelg beat Howard, 2-1, in the season opener last week.

Was it an upset? A fluke? Is Glenelg now the team to beat, or is it still Howard? Or maybe Reservoir, which has the county's top hitter in Megan Maloney? Or maybe…

"I'm not sure this was an upset. Every year Glenelg and Howard play, it's a dog fight," said Howard's new coach, Chuck Rice. "I think every time you lose to your rival, it's disappointing, but it was the first game of the season. We're going back to practice … and get ready for the next game."

The rematch is set for April 25. "I can't tell you which team will be better when we play again," Glenelg's Dean Sheridan said, "but this was a good win for us."

Rice said there are other teams to worry about. "Mt. Hebron was young and good last year and they are getting better each year. Plus, they have a seasoned coach in Chuck Struhar. Never count them out. The Vikings have a good mix of Vogans."

That would be the twins, Erin, a pitcher, and Bridgette, a catcher. But they are versatile, giving Struhar a lot of options in his lineup.

So there's a problem with making predictions, especially in this county. On any given day, any team can be a winner.

But Glenelg and Howard sure look good.

"The best pitching of all, though, is still at Howard. With O'Neill and O'Connor, they will remain the team to beat and will make another run for a state title as well," said Tee Dronenburg, once a star at Howard and now coaching at Wilde Lake.

Howard has "experienced pitchers who can really make unprepared batters look silly," added Centennial's new coach, Katie Grimm. She believes her Eagles are just a few hits away from being among the "elite" again in Howard County, though they lost their first game to the powerful Reservoir team. Maloney had four hits, including a home run and a triple to lead Reservoir.

With one loss, Howard will need some help from rivals. But Glenelg too will need some help from rivals.

So go out on a limb and make a prediction if you must. The only prediction that is safe to make is this: It will be an interesting season.

Games to see

The rematch between Glenelg and Howard is April 25. Other early games to see:

April 3: Howard at Centennial; April 10: Glenelg at Centennial; April 13: Mt. Hebron at Reservoir.

On the diamond

Here's what to expect from county teams:

Atholton

2011 record: 12-5 league, 15-6 overall

Key returners: Seniors Gabby Nowicki (3B), Morgan Fleming (1B), Christina Eshelman.

Need to know: Maureen Shacreaw, who took the 2008 Raiders to the Class 3A state final, is back as head coach after taking time to work on a master's degree. She inherits three leaders in Nowicki, Fleming and Eshelman, all third-year varsity players. But pitching will be "by committee," she said, with Eshelman, sophomore Alex Herschman and senior Rachael Bell all seeing time in the circle. Nowicki, Maya Schwartz, Morgan Fleming and Christina Fleming will lead the offense. Gina D'Asto, a "new, young talent," will see playing time, Shacreaw said.

The Raiders got off to a rough start, with a big loss to Marriotts Ridge, but rebounded to win the next day over River Hill.

"We look to play hard every inning and build off each game and use our senior leadership to lay the foundation of the future," said Shacreaw, who's carrying a squad of 17. "I expect to play a lot of players."

Centennial

2011 record: 7-10 league, 7-11 overall

Key returners: Seniors Rebecca Boettcher (OF), Naomi Precthel (C), Hannah Ouelette (1B); sophomore Emily Bowman (P).

Need to know: Centennial, rich in softball history, again is "really close to being an elite Howard County softball team. We just need to work a bit harder to get there," said new head coach Katie Grimm. "This team has the talent to be a big contender in this county. We are working really hard in improving our confidence at the plate, but that has to start with the seniors performing well at bat."

Ouelette is the team leader and just "fun to watch," said Grimm. Boettcher is a confident leader in the outfield. Behind the plate, Precthel "understands how to control the flow of the game and to keep her pitcher confident," Grimm added. That pitcher is Bowman, who, after just one varsity season, has moved into seventh on Centennial's all-time strikeout list.

Glenelg

2011 record: 12-4 league, 14-6 overall

Top returners: Seniors Nykita Vernot (2B), Amanda Bendix (P); junior Leah Allen (SS).

Need to know: Bendix, a first-team outfielder last year, was slated to handle most of the pitching duties this spring, but she's sidelined after a basketball injury. "I don't know if she'll return," coach Dean Sheridan said. Colleen Regan has picked up the baton and has already pitched the Gladiators to an opening-season win over favored Howard. She's "pitching well right now; she'll need to continue," Sheridan said.

Two other all-countians return in Vernot and Allen. Not only are they defensive standouts, they are respected at the plate. Vernot hit at a .482 pace last year and Allen was a .531 slugger with an on-base percentage of .953. She had 20 stolen bases, as well. They will lend experience to the young Gladiators. "I have two freshmen and four sophomores starting," Sheridan said.

Hammond

2011 record: 4-13 league, 4-14 overall

Top returners: Senior Hannah Force (SS); juniors Jill Purdy (2B/3B), Samantha Speierman (P); sophomore Keyuana Griffin (C).

Need to know: As the season goes along, this team will get better and "might surprise a few teams," said Brad Speierman. "Offensively, we have the strongest lineup I've seen in the seven years I've been coaching softball at Hammond."

The top half of the lineup includes Griffin at leadoff, Purdy, and cleanup batter Force, the only returning senior and a four-year starter. Griffin has a "knack for getting the ball in play … but she also has the ability to hit for power and get a lot of extra base hits," Speierman said.

Samantha Speierman does double duty as the team's starting pitcher and top hitter. Sharing the circle will be two freshmen with a lot of travel-ball experience. Caroline Goyne will split time between pitching and first, while Emily Speierman will be at third when not in the circle. They also will figure in Hammond's offense.

Howard

2011 record: 16-1 league, 21-3 overall

Top returners: Seniors Sage McGrann (1B/OF), Julianna Natoli (SS), Samantha O'Connor (P), Kensey O'Neill (P); junior Katie Wilkinson (3B).

Need to know: Howard won the county title, but lost a heartbreaker in the Class 3A state championship game. The Lions need "to play error free like last year and things will fall in place for us to get back to where we were last year," new head coach Chuck Rice said. "I believe some of the underclassmen will step up to bring Howard another winning season."

The Lions have the best pitching duo in the county. "My pitchers will be the pivotal part of this team," Rice said. "Their leadership and experience on the mound will help us go far." O'Neill (12-1 and an All-Metro pick in 2011, and O'Connor (9-2) pitched "exceptionally well," striking out 10 batters between them and only giving up two walks, said Rice, yet got beat by Glenelg last week.

McGrann (.410) is "one of the silent leaders on this team. Her play speaks volume, she gets key hits and makes key plays in the field," he added. Natoli (.421), a defensive anchor, has a bat that has "always been a dangerous weapon when she is in the zone." And Wilkinson hit .441, had seven doubles and played nearly flawless defense last year.

Though the Lions are down one in the win-loss column already, this team returns more veterans and quality players than any other county team.

Long Reach

2011 record: 1-16 league, 3-17 overall

Top returners: Senior Lexi Briscoe (OF); junior Jessica Dubbs (P); sophomore Emily Forbus (3B).

Need to know: Third-year coach Melissa Boardman says her team "needs confidence and consistency." She sees improvement "but we need to be able to show that throughout every inning. We need to be able to come back after making an error and be aggressive at the plate."

The Lightning is young, with two freshmen and four sophomores, she added. The veterans include Dubbs, who has taken over the No. 1 pitching spot and is a key offensive player as well. Briscoe is quick and covers a lot of ground in the outfield. She is "one of the most aggressive baserunners a coach could have."

Forbus is still young, but "plays her corner with determination and a will to learn and win" Boardman said. Newcomer Christina Doshim has landed the starting spot at short and bats cleanup. "She has a swing that is hard to find in a high school sophomore."

Marriotts Ridge

2011 record: 10-7 league, 12-8 overall

Top returners: Seniors Megan Hamilton (C), Felicia Pereira (OF) and Beth Wehr (SS).

Need to know: Co-coaches Brent Ault and Renard Parson are counting on the trio of seniors to serve as leaders both on and off the field this spring. Pereira is the top returning hitter; she batted an even .400 and showed power with some extra base hits. "We need to be a better baserunning team this spring and be able to adjust to quality pitchers," Parson said.

Juniors Danielle Lein (1B) and Lindsay Kellner (2B) will provide field leadership, sound defense and offensive versatility, added Parson. Sophomore Katie Smith will be in the circle most games and will be "crucial to our success."

Mt. Hebron

2011 record: 8-8 league, 9-9 overall

Top returners: Senior Lauren Lettieri (2B); juniors Bridgette Vogan (C), Erin Vogan (P/1B); sophomore Allison Bluhm (SS).

Need to know: Erin Vogan returns after leading the Vikings in just about every offensive category last year, hitting .480 with five triples. She has "great softball sense and is a great team player," coach Chuck Struhar said. Her twin sister, Bridgette, will be behind the plate. She's a year-round player and her experience and leadership stand out. Bluhm may be the Vikings' most improved player. She's at short and Lettieri, a three-year starter, is at second.

Struhar's teams are always well-schooled in the fundamentals. Playing tight defense is a key to Mt. Hebron's season, he said, and the pitching staff needs to "avoid walks." If they can get consistent offense, the Vikings can be spoilers.

Oakland Mills

2011 record: 2-15 league, 2-16 overall

Top returners: Senior Erin Yarn (1B); sophomores Tori Gordon (P), Sydney Heflinger (3B/C), Heidi Larsen (IF).

Need to know: The Scorpions return just four veterans, and only one senior. But that upperclassman —Yarn — is "a strong leader on and off the field," said coach Shelby Rhodes, and "an all-around smart player with a great bat."

Oakland Mills needs a strong core to upright a struggling program, and Rhodes expects a lot of the returning players. "I expect them all to show true leadership as they lead the Oakland Mills program to a brighter future.

"My team needs to believe in themselves and take pride in their abilities," Rhodes said.

Reservoir

2011 record: 13-4 league, 15-5 overall

Top returners: Seniors Amy Bresson (2B), Rachel Brown (P), Natalie Leffler (SS), Megan Maloney (OF).

Need to know: The Gators finished tied for second in the league last year and have the star power to improve. They have the offense (Maloney), pitching (Brown) and defense (Bresson and Leffler). All were all-county picks in 2011. Maloney led the league with a .597 average and Brown struck out 101 batters, while Bresson and Leffler have impressive glove work.

Reservoir needs "the senior leadership to consistently step up and help our underclassman develop and grow throughout the season," coach Julie Frisvold said.

Maloney, committed to play at Slippery Rock next spring, has also shown "exceptional defense" in the outfield, said Frisvold. The center fielder will make pitchers pay for their mistakes. She had 11 extra-base hits in 2011, and has a homer and a triple in this young season.

Bresson (Lynchburg) and Leffler (Eckerd) will also play college ball next year.

River Hill

2011 record: 13-4 league, 13-5 overall

Top returners: Seniors Lauren Black (1B), Katie Woolls (3B); junior Kat Varga (2B).

Need to know: The Hawks need Woolls' powerhitting as well as her glove work at the hot corner if the team is to finish as strong as last year. She led the team at the plate with a .410 average in 2011. At the other corner, Black has the "ability to make some great plays," said coach Marni Rosenbaum.

Both are captains. "They show a love for the game and work hard at their positions," Rosenbaum said.

Varga returns at second. She brings back a "strong bat, good glove and good knowledge of the game," said the coach. Varga has been a second-team pick two straight years.

"Our team needs to work together," Rosenbaum said. "We have five returning starters and some people are playing new positions." But, she added, four freshmen will be stepping into important roles.

Wilde Lake

2011 record: 2-15 league, 2-17 overall

Top returners: Seniors Sanaz Kabiryousefi (3B), Emma Shaffer (SS); junior Kourtney Harrison (C).

Need to know: Harrison is the Wildcats' only returning all-county player. She provides leadership on and off the field, said coach Tee Dronenburg. "She has a powerful stick with the ability to hit for average and power, she is a wall behind the plate, and she has a tremendous mind for the game of softball."

Shaffer, a natural leader on and off the field, has a line-drive swing, great speed, a solid glove, and a strong arm, Dronenburg said. Kabiryousefi, now at third, is as a "coachable a kid as you can find (and) demands the best of herself and her teammates. Her swing is getting better every day."

Wilde Lake needs pitchers Rose O'Rourke, a junior, and sophomore Olivia Harrison, to step up. "They need to believe in themselves, show confidence, and throw strikes," said the coach.

Two sophomores and a freshman have earned starting roles and need to adjust to the level of competition they'll face in the league.

Chapelgate Christian Academy

2011 record: 0-11 league (IAAM B), 1-12 overall

Top returners: Juniors Courtney Bohn (CF), Clara Sevy (SS).

Need to know: Sevy is a player to watch this spring. Nobody hit better in this county in 2011. She batted an even .600 and set a school record for on-base percentage (.620). Sevy, the only Yellowjacket to make the All-IAAM B Conference team, and Bohn are team leaders by example, said coach John Isaac. They will bat one-two in the lineup, have speed on the basepaths and are solid defensively.

The Yellowjackets are already 3-0.

"To be successful this season we need our young pitchers to step up," said Isaac. "Our offense needs to gain its confidence in its ability." He is already impressed with his freshmen, including Bethanne Venkatesen (P) and Phoebe Cleaver (P/1B), who have been on fire at the plate.

Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun
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