Kayli Paugh wasn't afraid to let herself dream big.
The Howard pitcher with a power arm and just as powerful bat had already displayed moments of greatness as a junior on her way to being named a second-team all-county selection and helping the Lions to a top three finish in the county standings in 2013.
Yet, as Paugh mapped out her goals before this season, she knew the potential was there for something even better.
"In the back of my mind I was thinking, 'How cool would it be if I could reach that (Player of the Year) level and help us compete for a county title.' It was Katie Wilkinson last year and, having her as a teammate, I definitely was kind of looking up to her," Paugh said. "I remember thinking why not me this year?
"It's one of those things where I wanted to do everything I could to help the team, and I knew if I stayed confident hitting and confident pitching anything was possible."
Sure enough, putting together a senior season where she led the county with a 1.14 ERA, smacked a county-best seven home runs and upped her batting average almost 200 points to .490, Paugh reached a level all her own this spring.
And it's because of those individual accomplishments, along with helping lead Howard (16-1, 19-2-1) to this year's county championship, that she has been named this spring's Howard County Times/Columbia Flier softball Player of the Year.
"There aren't many girls that come around like Kayli," Howard coach Chuck Rice said. "She's a shutdown pitcher that also has the ability to win a game for you at the plate every time she comes up. We always saw the talent with her coming up since she was on the JV, but this year she added the confidence to go along with it."
A year of travel ball, along with offseason work with hitting coach Scott Wade and pitching coach Jenn Shellhammer, went a long way to putting Paugh in position to hit the ground running this spring.
However, as important as all the preparation was, actually getting into big game situations and delivering in the clutch was just as critical to setting the stage for the breakout campaign.
Right out of the gates, Paugh combined with fellow senior pitcher Courtney Merson to shut out Broadneck. Then, two days later, she pitched a masterful two-hit victory over Mt. Hebron where she struck out 12 and allowed just one run.
"Coming into the season, that was the game we wanted because of the playoffs last year," said Paugh, referencing Howard's loss to the Vikings in the 2013 postseason. "So beating them and pitching the way I did, I think it not only gave me a lot of confidence but gave the whole team a lot of confidence. We figured if we could do it against Hebron then we could do it against anybody."
Howard did indeed keep rolling, stumbling only once against Centennial prior to spring break. After that, the team didn't lose again until a regional semifinal match-up against Sherwood — a team that went on to win its third consecutive state title this spring.
Included on the way to winning the program's first county championship since 2011 were season sweeps of second-place River Hill and third-place Mt. Hebron.
"After the Centennial loss, I think it just made us strive to get better," Paugh said. "We really focused on our defense and I thought as the season went on that was probably the strongest part of our team.
"Courtney and I owe our defense so much … they made us look good."
This year, Paugh got to be a part of that standout defense when she wasn't pitching. No longer blocked by Wilkinson, she got to play some third base and she showcased just how versatile she can be.
"I was really happy that I got to have that opportunity senior year and, I'm not going to lie, I've really been looking forward to it," Paugh said. "It definitely helped me to keep in the game because I was always focused and always more involved in the game those times when I wasn't pitching."
Added Rice: "She worked as hard at third base as she did on the mound. She was the complete package."
During the course of the season there were plenty of highlights, but the team's double-header against Reservoir late in the year is right there at the top of the list. It was in the first game of that twin bill that Paugh proceeded to hit home runs in each of her first three at bats.
Reservoir, refusing to let Paugh continue her onslaught, decided to intentionally walk her in each of her ensuing five plate appearances that day.
"I've coached against a lot of really great players, many that went off and played high-level college ball, and I've never seen anything like that," Rice said. "We are talking three absolute bombs. When she is in the zone, there is nobody better and she showed that in that game."
As a pitcher, Paugh finished with an 11-2 record while striking out 98 and walking 26. While a lot of her success was the result of hard work, she also was incredibly quick to credit the relationship she has with long-time catcher and best-friend, Alli Jakubek.
"Alli actually has been my catcher for 10 years, ever since we started playing together," Paugh said. "It's really awesome that we got to continue this into high school, and I just felt so comfortable with her. She's been my catcher, and in my heart she always will be. I was always confident with her and I knew we could get the job done together.
"She really helped motivate me and she deserves a lot of credit."
Paugh is slated to play for Hood College next spring, and Rice says he expects her to only build on the success she's had to date.
"I think she is going to do really well at Hood College because she has the right personality and mentality to succeed at the next level," Rice said. "She has the tools and has the drive as well."
Named to the all-county first team are:
Maddie Bennett, Mt. Hebron. A junior that made up half of the Vikings' shutdown pitching duo, Bennett made great strides this spring after making second-team all county in 2013. With a nearly identical number of innings pitched, she managed to improve her numbers in every single pitching category. She cut her walks in half — allowing only eight on the season — while also upping her strikeout numbers from 57 to 78. All of that led to the county's second-best ERA (1.21).
"Maddie has pinpoint control and can throw in that curveball or screwball wherever she wants it," Mt. Hebron coach Chuck Struhar said. "She has really worked at her craft and takes great pride in not walking people."
Bennett had plenty of standout games for a Mt. Hebron team that made it to the state semifinals, but right up there at the top of the list was a playoff win over Centennial where she struck out 13 batters in a 7-2 victory. She allowed just one base runner over the final six innings. At the plate on the season, Bennett hit for a .420 average and had nine extra-base hits.
Alex Herschman, Atholton. A repeat first-team selection, Herschman was once again the workhorse for a Raiders' team that finished in the top half of the county standings. She pitched 117 innings, third most among county pitchers, and still managed to decrease her ERA from a season ago from 1.49 down to 1.37.
"She kept us in every single game. All the games against the top teams we were in because of her," Atholton coach Bob Baxter said. "She's one of those pitchers that won't blow you away with velocity, but has such great movement and location. She's a true competitor."
Herschman also was a top-of-the-order batter for the Raiders that hit for a .340 average and scored 11 runs. She will play for McDaniel College next year.
Courtney Merson, Howard. A ground-ball pitcher who finished with a perfect 8-0 record, Merson combined with Kayli Paugh to give the county-champion Lions a dynamic duo in the circle. She finished the season allowing just 34 hits, which is the fewest by any county pitcher that threw at least 60 innings, and had an ERA of 1.63.
But what made Merson, a second-team all-county player a year ago, so valuable was her versatility. When she wasn't pitching, she was a gold-glove caliber first baseman and at the plate she hit for a .471 average, smacked seven extra-base hits and scored 22 runs.
"Her versatility and ability to excel in every area was just unbelievable. In my opinion, not only was she an all-county pitcher, but she was the best defensive first baseman in the county," Howard coach Chuck Rice said. "I think the big thing for Courtney was that she had a great summer with her select team at nationals and that carried over. She did everything we asked of her and more."
Merson will play at the University of Mary Washington.
Maya Schwartz, Atholton. A first-year catcher at the high school level who had previously starred as an infielder, Schwartz settled in to the role immediately this spring and was the kind of leader the Raiders needed.
"She definitely felt the most comfortable behind the plate and I think she liked that she could run the game back there … she's a catcher at the travel level, so it wasn't a new position for her," Atholton coach Bob Baxter said. "There's something about Maya that you can't teach. She just has an innate ability to play her sport."
At the plate, she was the team's leader in six different major offensive categories. Her batting average of .534 was second best among the county's public school players and was an improvement of 180 points from her junior campaign. She also posted team-high numbers in hits (31), runs (19), RBI (18), doubles (8) and home runs (2).
Sammi Cadigan, Mt. Hebron. Before the season began, Vikings' coach Chuck Struhar predicted that his senior first baseman was poised for a breakout campaign. Sure enough, after never previously making all-county, Cadigan exploded onto the scene as arguably the county's most-improved player. The four-year varsity letter-winner improved her batting average from .224 as a junior all the way up to .474 this spring — among the top 10 averages in the county.
"I told my assistant before the year, she's going to be the county's biggest sleeper. And she really was … she kept getting better and better as the season went on," Struhar said. "She could absolutely crush the ball and even her outs were hard outs."
Cadigan finished with eight doubles and was among the team leaders in multi-hit games. She spent time batting in a number of different spots in Mt. Hebron's powerful lineup and produced in all of them, scoring 20 runs and driving in 18.
Alli Bluhm, Mt. Hebron. A three-time all-county player, Bluhm was the bat at the heart of the Vikings line-up and was the anchor of the team's defense from her shortstop position. She had power numbers (five doubles, five triples, two home runs) to go with a solid batting average (.390) and a .930 fielding percentage to round things out defensively.
"Alli is as sound offensively and defensively as any player you will find at this level," Mt. Hebron coach Chuck Struhar said. "From where she came in as an outfielder to becoming an absolutely tremendous shortstop … she earned all of it through hard work and determination."
Bluhm's hottest stretch undoubtedly came during the middle of the season when she helped carry the Vikings to what ended up being a double-digit winning streak. Over the first two weeks of April, she had seven extra-base hits — including a double and a home run in a one-run victory over River Hill.
Rachel Cadigan, Mt. Hebron. The sophomore second baseman is lauded by coach Chuck Struhar as quite possibly the best defender he's every coached.
"I've been doing this for almost 30 years and I have never seen someone cover as much ground as she does at second base. There is just no one in her class," Struhar said. "Rachel could almost literally cover the entire right side of the infield by herself. That initial first step that she has is so quick that she gets to balls that no one else can."
In addition to her standout play with the glove, Cadigan also blossomed into a tremendous all-around hitter as well after spending most of her freshman season as a full-time slap hitter. She raised her batting average to .466 and collected 12 RBI after posting just one as a freshman. Cadigan's speed also helped her finish as the county's top base stealer, swiping a total of 19 bags on the season.
Amanda Petersen, Atholton. A first-time all-county selection, Petersen's greatest strength was her consistency on both sides of the ball. She boasted a .444 batting average hitting in the third spot most of the year, and she was among the top two for the Raiders in almost every offensive category. But she also was terrific with the glove at her shortstop position, compiling a fielding percentage of .948.
"Amanda has the complete package with the offense — an absolutely beautiful swing — and the defense — a great arm and great range," Atholton coach Bob Baxter said. "She has great natural ability to play the game and is passionate about it.
"In just about every competitive game we played, she played a huge role."
Petersen finished with eight doubles and 19 runs scored. Further showcasing her versatility, she also stepped in and played catcher for one game — a position Baxter says she could end up playing full time as a senior because of her experience at the position during travel ball.
Evvie Buehlman, Mt. Hebron. A finalist for Player of the Year honors, Buehlman picked up right where she left off after a dazzling freshman campaign in 2013.
Splitting time defensively between the outfield and pitcher, she excelled at both — but was particularly strong on the rubber. Her strikeout per inning ratio was the best in the county, as she finished with 109 in 60 innings. She also was tied for second in ERA (1.21) and tied for third in wins (9) among county pitchers.
At the plate, she led the county's public school players in hits (37), average (.561) and doubles (12). She also stole 10 bases and scored 26 runs. Among her season highlights was delivering the game-winning hit in the regional championship game victory over Glenelg that secured the program's first trip to the state final four since 2005.
"She's a pure softball player in pretty much every sense — her swing, her pitching, her fielding, the way she runs the bases," Mt. Hebron coach Chuck Struhar said. "She's a sophomore, but she plays like a senior. Evvie is the one you want in the big spot with the game on the line."
Jordan Burk, Centennial. The junior captain for the Eagles took her game to impressive new heights this spring — setting career-highs in every single offensive category. The batting average jump was the biggest improvement, as her team-best .426 mark was a jump of almost 100 points from her sophomore campaign. But, as a top-of-the-line-up spark, Burk was a leader across the board.
She posted team-high totals of 25 runs scored, 26 hits and five doubles. Burk also produced multi-hit games a half-dozen times, including in the team's season-ending playoff loss to Mt. Hebron.
"She was the kind of player that when she was getting on base, it lifted our entire team and she was so consistent that I could always rely on her to make the play or get the hit," Centennial coach Katie Grimm said. "She hit in the two-hole and her versatility was huge for us. She could lay down a bunt to move a runner or just as easily swing away for a double or a triple."
Courtney Colosimo, River Hill. After enjoying a solid season as a sophomore while being named second-team all-county, Colosimo stepped into more of a central role for the Hawks this spring and managed to improve her numbers across the board. She became the team's everyday centerfielder and its main lead-off batter.
Her average improved almost 100 points to .352, and she also posted career highs in extra-base hits (8), runs (20) and stolen bases (4). "She is just such a clutch player and seems to always be coming through and making things happen. She used her speed to get on and then let her teammates behind her move her around," River Hill coach Marni Rosenbaum said.
In the field, she ran things in the outfield and covered a lot of ground. Her 21 putouts were tied for the most among county outfielders. She also showcased the ability to pitch, picking up a victory against Oakland Mills during the regular season.
Taylor McGrann, Howard. As the leadoff hitter for the Lions, McGrann was an absolute magician with the bat. She had the ability to hit to all fields, helping her hit for a .500 batting average, and also boasted some terrific power that accounted for 11 extra-base hits on the season.
In the team's playoff loss to eventual state-champion Sherwood, she went a perfect 4-4 with three doubles. Earlier in the season, she accounted for both of the team's RBI in a walk-off win, 2-1, over River Hill.
"She has absolutely the perfect swing … there is not a flaw to be found. And it's because of that, that I believe she's one of the purest hitters I have ever coached," Howard coach Chuck Rice said. "She has an uncanny ability to pick up the ball and hit the ball where it is pitched and, at the same time, understand how teams were pitching her so she could use that to her advantage."
Defensively, McGrann played center field and made just one error.
Katie Smith, Marriotts Ridge. After serving as the Mustangs' primary pitcher last spring, Smith was able to showcase her versatility as a senior by shining in a variety of infield and outfield roles in addition to still pitching on occasion. It was that ability to have her hand in a little bit of everything that truly made Smith — a four-year varsity starter — so valuable.
"Katie is a smart softball player, knowing what each situation calls for whether it be the pitch she needs to throw or where the play is on the field," Marriotts Ridge coach Karyn Curley said. "She led the team inside the batter's box as well with the highest batting average and slugging percentage, consistently getting on base in almost every game."
Smith's batting average of .426 was a significant improvement on her .282 mark from a year earlier. Her totals for runs (15), RBI (13), doubles (7) and stolen bases (4) were all greatly improved as well.
Bethanne Venkatesan, Chapelgate. For a Yellowjackets team that finished as the runner-up in the IAAM B Conference tournament, Venkatesan was the piece that made everything go. She was the team's main pitcher, finishing with nine wins and 130 strikeouts in 103 innings. But it was her efforts at the plate that made her truly special.
Her .596 batting average, 10 extra-base hits (including 3 home runs) and 23 RBI all were among the county's elite.
"She was the most dangerous hitter in our conference," Chapelgate coach John Isaac said. "She became our all-time doubles leader at Chapelgate and moved into second in career batting average and on-base percentage."