Howard County sports editor Brent Kennedy talks about the best teams and players from the 2013 softball regular season. (Jon Sham/Baltimore Sun Media Group video)

Heading into this spring, Howard softball coach Chuck Rice pulled aside senior Katie Wilkinson and laid it all out on the table. A Lions team that had graduated 11 seniors from the year before needed someone to step up as a leader and Wilkinson, as a two-time all-county first team selection, had the pedigree Rice was looking for.

"I basically told her, 'the team is yours and we're going to ride it as far as we can on your back.' It was her time to step up and I wanted to make sure she was ready for that," Rice said.

As it turns out, Wilkinson was way ahead of him.

"I had actually been thinking about it for a long time, way before tryouts even started," she said. "I knew it was my time to lead the team. Everything coach said when he talked to me, about taking responsibility and being a leader, was stuff I had already thought about.

"I was nervous and there was definitely pressure, but at the same time I was kind of excited to see what we could do."

Embracing those leadership responsibilities from the very beginning, the versatile third baseman helped turn what could have easily been a rebuilding season for the Lions into a campaign that maintained the program's spot among the county's elite. With a final record of 13-4 in county play and 17-6 overall, Howard finished among the top three Howard County squads for the fifth straight year.

And Wilkinson, this year's Columbia Flier/Howard County Times softball Player of the Year, was front and center every step of the way.

She did it with her bat — hitting for a .512 average, while collecting four home runs, nine doubles, 35 RBI and 29 runs scored. She did it with her glove — making just two errors and finishing with a fielding percentage of 96 percent.

But, most importantly, she did it with her leadership — guiding a team where she was one of just two returning starters.

"She got comfortable in being able to pull the girls aside and say 'OK, it's our turn now … Let's go.' We never gave up this year and a lot of that was because she never gave up," Rice said. "She was really good at helping our young girls forget about a bad inning or bad game and move on."

There was some adversity in the early going, with Howard dropping two of its first three games. A seventh-inning comeback by Glenelg produced one of those two defeats. Wilkinson says those tough losses, though, only served to strengthen the team.

"We came together after that I thought," she said. "It was almost like we bonded over those losses."

Wilkinson herself seemed to pick up steam as the season went on. She pointed to a close loss against River Hill during the first half of the season, where she produced a home run, as a real turning point.

From that point on, Wilkinson went on a tear. She produced three or more hits in four of the next six games and Howard came together to win 10 of its next 11 contests to advance into the regional semifinals.

Although the Lions lost in the semis to Mt. Hebron, 2-1, it was still a special run. Wilkinson ended up finishing among the top six in the county in batting average, hits, runs, doubles, home runs and RBI.

Next year, when she heads to Towson University, Wilkinson says her competitive softball career will likely come to a close. She's chosen to focus on her academics and pursue a major in nursing.

Her legacy as one of Howard High School's all-time greats, though, is set in stone.

"For the last three years, there hasn't been anyone better over at third base," Rice said. "She leaves some awfully big shoes to fill."

Named to the all-county first team are: