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:
Evvie Buehlman, Mt. Hebron freshman. There were few two-way players in the area that were better than Buehlman, who put together a dazzling debut in her first high school campaign. She was an ace on the pitching rubber and a power bat at the top of the Vikings' line-up.
Her very first game set the tone, as she delivered three hits (two doubles, home run), 5 RBIs and picked up the win at pitcher against Oakland Mills. She never slowed down on the way to a county-leading .584 batting average, 45 hits and 17 doubles. She also added 12 stolen bases, 30 runs and 28 RBIs. At pitcher, she produced a 1.12 ERA, struck out 89 batters in 75 innings and racked up an 8-3 overall record.
Alex Herschman, Atholton junior. For a Raiders' team that was in the thick of the race for a county title up until the final two weeks of the regular season, Herschman was the rock in the circle from Day 1. With 126.2 innings pitched, the junior took the ball for Atholton all but two innings this spring.
Her 159 strikeouts were a county-high and she compiled a 14-6 overall record. Her 1.49 ERA placed her among the top five in the county. Just as impressive were the six shutouts along the way. At the plate, Herschman also was incredibly consistent. She hit for a .397 batting average, stole seven bases and delivered 17 RBIs. Other highlights included a grand slam against South River and a trio of three-hit games.
Samantha Speierman, Hammond senior. As far as power pitchers go, Speierman was as good as they get this spring. In 92.2 innings, she produced an impressive 153 strikeouts to give her by far the county's top strikeout rate per seven innings (11.62). She compiled over 12 strikeouts on five different occasions, fanning a career-high 16 in an early-season victory over North County.
With a 1.90 ERA and a 9-6 record, Speierman was terrific at giving the Golden Bears a chance to win almost every time out. She was a big reason the team got off to a 6-0 start to the year. Almost as important as the pitching, was her ability to get on base as the team's leadoff hitter. Speierman hit .437, including five doubles, and came around to score 16 times.
Bridgette Vogan, Mt. Hebron senior. Vogan certainly wasn't your prototypical catcher, as the senior backstop boasted terrific speed, a strong on-base percentage (.469) and spent the majority of the year as the Vikings' leadoff hitter. She hit for a .358 batting average on 24 hits, seven of which went for extra bases. And once on base, she moved herself into scoring position with 12 steals. Her 20 runs scored were tied for most among county catchers.
Having Vogan's senior leadership on the other side of the ball was incredibly valuable as well considering Mt. Hebron's two main pitchers were a freshman and a sophomore. She threw out six base runners trying to steal this spring.
Faith Kujawa, Glenelg junior. It was a breakthrough season for the Gladiators' corner infielder and she wasted little time announcing herself as a force to be reckoned with. Kujawa delivered a game-winning home run against Howard in the team's second game of the season and proceeded to hit three more home runs over the next five games. She went on to finish tied for third in the county with six long balls on the season and also added seven doubles.
She wasn't just a power bat, though, as she finished with a .438 batting average and came through with clutch hits all season en route to driving in 24 runs. At first base defensively, Kujawa delivered a .972 fielding percentage.
Leah Allen, Glenelg senior. Last season's county Player of the Year, Allen was a finalist for the award once again this season. Her incredible balance of power and average at the plate, combined with tremendous range defensively, put her among the area's elite all-around players.
Allen finished as the county leader in home runs (9) and she got them in important games, including two blasts in a late-season win over Atholton that clinched the county championship as a team. She also put herself among the county's top five players in hits (37), average (.514), RBIs (31) and stolen bases (12). At shortstop, she played gold-glove caliber defense and finished with 32 putouts. Allen graduates as a four-year first team all-county performer.
Kourtney Harrison, Wilde Lake senior. It was a trying season for the Wildecats, who didn't win a county game this spring. But Harrison still found a way to consistently shine. Manning third base, she played shut down defense when the opportunities presented themselves — committing just two errors on 43 balls hit her way.
Her offensive talents were just as impressive, serving as Wilde Lake's main run producer in the middle of the lineup. Her 16 RBIs accounted for roughly 40 percent of the team's end-of-the-year total. She also added a .385 batting average, five doubles, a triple, home run and nine runs scored.
Kinsey Johnson, River Hill sophomore. Part of the Hawks' exceptional sophomore class, Johnson manned the hot corner and provided a strong top-of-the-order bat for a program that reached the state final four for the first time. River Hill allowed an average of just over two runs a game as a team and having players like Johnson, who boasts a terrific arm at third and had a .925 fielding percentage, is a major reason for that.
At the plate, Johnson wasn't flashy. Her three doubles were the extent of her extra-base hits. But she was extremely valuable as a volume hitter, leading the team with 36 hits and a .487 batting average. She also chipped in with 22 runs scored and 16 RBIs.
Clara Sevy, Chapelgate senior. The Yellowjackets were vastly improved this spring and having an experienced upperclassmen like Sevy anchoring the defense from her shortstop position was a major reason for that. Chapelgate went from 5-6 in IAAM B Conference play a year ago to 9-3 in league play this year.
Sevy, a multiple-time IAAM B Conference All Star, was first or second on the Yellowjackets in almost every major offensive category. She had a team-best 37 hits, 3 home runs and posted a .536 batting average. She also scored 37 runs, had 38 RBI and delivered a trio of doubles and triples. Arguably her best game came against Garrison Forest, where she went 5-5 with two triples, a double and 8 RBIs in a double-digit victory on the road.
Kat Varga, River Hill senior. On a team filled with young talent, Varga was one of the senior leaders that helped bring everything together to guide River Hill into the state semifinals. She gave the Hawks a rock up the middle defensively, producing a .963 fielding percentage from her second-base position, and a sparkplug at the top of the line-up offensively.
Her .484 batting average was second on the team, and ninth best in the county, and her on-base percentage was a robust .579 when you factor in her 12 walks. She also scored a team-best 23 runs and had 16 RBI. Among her season highlights was delivering the walk-off hit, her second RBI single of the day, against Atholton in the regional semifinals.
Danielle Dolbow, Atholton sophomore. The speedy right fielder showcased the ability to cover tons of ground defensively and took away several extra-base hits with highlight-reel catches. She also had a tremendous arm that allowed her to throw four runners out over the course of the season. She demonstrated all her tools in a regular-season win over River Hill, making a diving catch and throwing a runner out at third to help preserve a late lead.
Dolbow was also strong offensively, chipping in with a .362 batting average, 19 runs scored and 10 RBI. Her speed translated to the base paths as well, with the sophomore stealing 10 bases. She had three-hit games against Long Reach and Centennial.
Taylor McGrann, Howard junior. As a second-year starter in the outfield, McGrann's game reached new heights this spring. She found a home in the leadoff spot and developed into a terrific table setter for a Lions' offense that averaged just shy of 10 runs a game. McGrann hit for a .429 batting average, was tied for second on the team with 26 runs scored and added six doubles.
As a testament to her consistency, she delivered at least one hit in all but two of the games she played in this spring. And more than 50 percent of the time she managed to put together multi-hit games.
Marissa Saglimbeni, Glenelg senior. From a pure power standpoint, there were few better in the area than Saglimbeni. She produced so much bat speed that, when she made solid contact, balls flew over the fence in bunches. She finished second in the county with seven home runs and got particularly hot down the stretch. During a two-week period at the end of the regular season, she smacked five home runs over the course of eight games.
Overall, Saglimbeni was improved in every single statistical category over her junior year. She delivered 23 RBI, 19 runs scored, three doubles and a batting average of .344. She also contributed solid defense from her right field position, making just one error.
Mandy Bendix, Glenelg senior. In a literal sense, Bendix truly did a little bit of everything for the Gladiators. She was one of the county's top 10 hitters in terms of average (.481), while also showcasing her fair share of power (6 home runs). She was undefeated as a pitcher (6-0) and, when she wasn't on the bump, she possessed the speed and range to play center field. She was part of the glue that kept Glenelg together on its way to an undefeated regular season.
As sparkling as the numbers were, however, it was how she got them that was the most impressive. In the second half of the season, as the Gladiators were trying to wrap up the county title, Bendix played her best ball. She hit two home runs in a win over Howard, had a seventh-inning grand slam to beat Marriotts Ridge and produced game-tying extra-base hits in late-inning comeback wins against Atholton and Hammond.Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun