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River Hill's Johnson leads Howard County softball all-county teams

Howard County Times sports editor and softball reporter Brent Kennedy recaps the 2015 softball season's teams, players and highlights. (Jon Sham/Baltimore Sun Media Group video)

The numbers don't lie.

With the 11 balls she hit over the fence this spring, River Hill senior Kinsey Johnson shattered the Howard County record for home runs in a season. No previous county player had ever hit more than seven.

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Yet, when presented with the notion that she could be one of the best power hitters to ever come through the area, Johnson quickly redirects.

"I don't know why, but I don't like being labeled as a power hitter. The numbers may say I am, but I guess that's not how I see myself," said Johnson, who had hit just two home runs over her first three years of high school combined. "Truthfully, I don't really ever go up there trying to hit home runs. For me, it's more trying to hit line drives and get on base. This year, those line drives I guess just went a little further than in the past."

In Johnson's defense, classifying her as just one type of hitter would be unfair. For a River Hill squad that went undefeated (19-0) in league play on its way to the program's first county title in more than a decade, the third baseman literally could do it all offensively.

By the time her final high school season was over this spring, Johnson had set eight new single-season program records: home runs (11), doubles (11), hits (54), batting average (.692), at bats (78), runs (46), RBI (44), and on-base-percentage (.747).

Throw in some sparkling defense at the hot corner (32 put outs) to go along with the leadership that comes with being a three-year varsity captain and Johnson had all the tools needed to be worthy of being named this year's Howard County Times/Columbia Flier softball Player of the Year.

"Looking at everything she's meant to the program, she definitely ranks up there as, one of, it not the best players to come through here," River Hill coach Marni Rosenbaum said. "She obviously has the numbers, but to me it's everything else that she's done on and off the field that made us a better team. When you hear the kind of amazing comments her teammates have about her … it says it all."

Of all the impressive numbers she achieved this year, Johnson says she's most proud of the batting average. Not only is the .692 mark among the top three ever posted by a county player, but it was an improvement of over 250 points from her junior year (.434). She says the difference was nothing more than getting out of her own way.

"I'm my own worst enemy at times because I have the tendency to get in my own head, so this year I really focused on the mental side of things," Johnson said. "The less I focus on the stats and instead just worry about going out and having fun, the better I play. This whole year, whether it was the home runs, the hits or our winning streak as a team, I never got too wrapped up in any of it."

Johnson has been an impact player for River Hill ever since arriving as a freshman, serving as a four-year varsity starter. That first year, though, she found herself playing a couple of positions that were foreign to her at the time.

With senior Katie Woolls locked in as the Hawks' starting third baseman, Johnson was forced to try her hand in the outfield and at catcher as a freshman in order to get regular playing time. Rosenbaum says Johnson's raw talent and athleticism made her a quick learner.

"She's always been extremely athletic and had a really strong arm, both of which really helped her at catcher," Rosenbaum said. "The thing I remember most about Kinsey as a freshman, though, was how she literally took on a leadership role right away. Most people you don't see that until they get a little bit older and a little more comfortable, but she just had that personality and worth ethic from the beginning."

By the time sophomore year rolled around, Johnson was able to move back to her more natural position at third base. The year spent moving around the field, however, was something she says made her a better player.

"Having basically only played third base with my travel team growing up, seeing the game from the outfield and at catcher really gave me a different perspective on the game," she said. "Catcher especially, the focus you have to have being involved with every single pitch, that definitely helped me in my development."

Johnson's offensive numbers made a huge jump from her freshman to sophomore campaigns. Her batting average saw the biggest spike, going from .348 up to .487. She also improved on her runs scored and RBI, earning her a spot on the first-team all-county squad after not making even second team as a freshman.

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Her efforts as a sophomore, alongside her teammates, also helped River Hill win the program's first region championship.

Then, after a junior season where she saw a bump in her extra-base hits (seven doubles, two triples and two home runs), Johnson completely transformed herself into a jack-of-all-trades this year.

The power surge was evident right from the get go, as a two home run game against Glenelg in late March gave her three bombs in the first two games of the year.

"It almost felt weird, because even with my travel team I've always been more of a contact player," Johnson said. "Everyone started talking about it and I didn't really know what to tell them other than 'stop talking about it, because you're going to jinx it.'"

The truth is, Johnson never slowed down and her hot hitting in the No. 3 spot in the order spearheaded the Hawks to new heights as well. Even later in the year, as opposing teams started intentionally walking her — Howard did it four times in one game — Johnson took it in stride as she reveled in watching her teammates step up and drive her home.

"The way my teammates were hitting behind me, I looked at it like the other teams were giving us free runs and that was fine with me," said Johnson, who tied for the second most walks in the county with 15. "It just gave my teammates a chance to show they could do great stuff too."

River Hill ended up using the momentum from its county championship to capture the 3A East region title as well in thrilling fashion, 13-12, against Mt. Hebron. The dream of a state title came to an end in the state semis against C. Milton Wright, but even in defeat Johnson stood out with a 3-for-3 day that included driving in one of her team's two runs.

While disappointed in the way things ended, Johnson says she looks back on her high school career with no regrets.

"I am so proud of my team and so honored to have been a part of this group," she said. "All you can ask for is to have a team that is going to be ready to work and ready to play every time they step on the field. I can say we had that and everything we achieved, we achieved it as a group."

Johnson's focus now turns to the next chapter of her playing career, as she prepares to suit up for Virginia Tech. In a lot of ways her first year in Blacksburg could mirror that of her first year at River Hill, as Johnson notes how the Hokies boast a standout player at third base in rising senior Kelsey Mericka.

Regardless of position, though, Johnson says she is ready for the new challenge.

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"If high school taught me anything, it's that you get out what you put in and four years goes by a lot faster than you think. So I'm going to go down there and do whatever I possibly can to help my team succeed," she said. "Even if it's just running the bases, I'm going to be ready to do whatever they need me to do."

Named to the all-county first team are:

Pitcher

Maddie Bennett, Mt. Hebron. When you look at the complete package — pitching and hitting — Mt. Hebron coach Chuck Struhar says he ranks Bennett's performance this spring in a category all its own.

"Maddie probably had the best all-around year of any player that I've ever coached," Struhar said. "Her pitching, hitting, fielding and base running were superb. She takes the game seriously and truly tries to get better each day."

With the ball in her hands at pitcher, Bennett was masterful. She fired 10 shutouts on her way to an 11-2 record and a county-best 0.63 ERA. She added 119 strikeouts against just 14 walks in just over 77 innings pitched. Among the season highlights was a no-hitter against Long Reach in the region semifinals.

The four-year all-county player also was a standout at the plate, finishing with a .564 batting average, 35 RBI, a career-high 15 doubles, three triples and a home run.

Sabrina Curtiss, River Hill. A four-year varsity starting pitcher for the Hawks, Curtiss was masterful at keeping opposing hitters off balance. She would hit her spots, only walking seven batters on the season in 70 innings pitched, and allowed her defense to then make plays behind her.

"She's always been very consistent in what she does, but this year I thought it was her confidence of having three years of experience under her belt that took her to the next level," coach Rosenbaum said. "She does a great job with her control and her movement, really able to locate her pitches."

With an 11-1 record this spring, she posted the highest winning percentage among county pitchers and also tied for the most wins. Her ERA of 1.30 was second best in the league. Rosenbaum pointed to the team's second game against Mt. Hebron, an 8-2 win on the road, as one of Curtiss' signature performances this season.

On the other side of things, she was also a solid offensive player that hit for a .355 average to go with 18 RBI.

Kristy Selby, River Hill. The second half of the Hawks' dynamic pitching duo, Selby served as the team's power pitcher. She could gear up when needed, finishing with 63 strikeouts and also had a knack for coming up big in big games.

"When she goes out there, she has this kind of fire in her eyes. She knows what pitches she wants to throw and, for the most part, she executes them," coach Rosenbaum said. "She's also the kind of person where the higher the pressure, it seemed like the better she was."

Selby, who will play at Muhlenberg College, posted a 10-1 record this year, giving her an unmatched 19-1 mark over the last two seasons combined. She was also one of just three public school players in the county this year to post an ERA under two (1.85).

Offensively, Selby served as River Hill's clean-up hitter. She posted a batting average of .382 to go with 24 RBI. Among the season highlights was delivering one of the team's RBI hits in a seventh-inning comeback win over Mt. Hebron for the 3A East region title.

Bethanne Venkatesan, Chapelgate. Yellowjackets' coach John Isaac doesn't hold back when talking about how much Venkatesan has meant to the program the last four years.

"She should be considered the best player ever to have played here. In addition to being a great pitcher, she holds several hitting records and fielded her position very well," Isaac said. "To honor that, as long as I coach here there will never be another No. 20 worn in the softball program."

Venkatesan, being a four-time all-conference player who finishes as the program leader in doubles, home runs, hits and RBI (tied), certainly supports her coach's words. She also is second in career strikeouts in Chapelgate history.

This spring, Venkatesan posted the best pitching numbers of her career. On her way to an 11-6 record, she struck out 148 batters and walked just 20. She also posted a sparkling 1.57 ERA. Just as impressive was her production at the plate that included a .594 batting average and 13 extra-base hits — six doubles, four triples and three home runs. She added a team-best 32 RBI.

As a team, Chapelgate made it to the program's second straight IAAM B Conference title game.

Catcher

Alina Milauskas, Long Reach. While the win total did not necessarily reflect it, the Lightning enjoyed one of their most competitive seasons in the last five years, and Milauskas was a major reason why. As the heart and soul of the team behind the plate, she was a coach on the field that provided the steady leadership a young Long Reach team needed.

"Alina has been a huge part of the Long Reach softball program, helping change the dedication, attitude, outlook and level of competition of our team," coach Melissa Boardman said.

At the plate, she was consistently one of the top hitters for the Lightning. She led the team with 18 RBI to go along with 18 runs scored, four doubles and a .439 batting average. She also came up huge with a 2-for-3 effort and three RBI in the team's biggest win of the season, a 12-8 victory over Centennial in the playoffs.

Infield

Emily Allen, Centennial. The Eagles made a major move up the standings (tied for fourth at 11-6), and the emergence of Allen as a versatile defender and middle-of-the-order bat played a major role in that jump.

As the team adjusted to deal with injuries, Allen moved around the diamond to spend time at catcher, first base and shortstop. "Defensively, I can't say enough about what she meant to this team. Whatever the team needed her to play, she played and was stellar in that role," coach Katie Grimm said.

At the plate Allen was the team leader in almost every offensive category. Her .532 batting average was over 200 points higher than last spring and she showcased tremendous increased power to the tune of 11 doubles, two triples and two home runs. Throw in the 37 RBI and 31 runs scored and a case could be made that Allen was the county's most improved offensive player.

"She's a focused, relaxed and confident hitter. Her job is to hit in runs and she relishes that role," Grimm said.

Berit Batterton, Howard. A Player of the Year candidate, Batterton was one of the main reasons that the defending county-champion Lions didn't suffer much of a fall off this spring despite graduating three all-county players from the previous year. She was a leader with her glove at third base and power bat at the plate.

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"Berit has been the cornerstone for the team this past year," coach Chuck Rice said. "Her arm strength is top in the county and she has won three or four games this year with her bat. Berit's leadership skills on and off the field are second to none."

Among the games Batterton specifically won with her bat was Howard's match-up with Blake in the 4A North region playoffs, where she hit a three-run go-ahead home run in the seventh inning to help pull out a 5-3 victory.

Overall, the junior standout was second in the county in home runs (7) to go along with a .507 batting average, 29 runs scored and 27 RBI.

Rachel Cadigan, Mt. Hebron. The speedy, slap-hitting second baseman has been a fixture near the top of the Vikings high-powered line-up the last couple years. As evidenced by a .557 batting average this spring, 10 stolen bases and 32 runs scored, Cadigan is the ideal table-setter.

Among her season highlights were a pair of four-hit days against Long Reach, once in the regular season and once in the playoffs.

But for as strong a hitter as she is, the junior draws the greatest praise for her defensive prowess. With great range and a strong arm, she excelled at robbing potential base hits.

"Rachel is, by far, the best fielding second baseman that I have seen in my years of coaching," coach Struhar said. "She has great range and a strong arm. She plays the game with great passion."

Rylee Kinsella, Mt. Hebron. She may be only a sophomore, but that didn't stop Kinsella from putting together a remarkable offensive season. She finished second in the county in batting average (.630), hits (51), RBI (39) and extra-base hits (20). Throw in a county-best six triples and Kinsella showcased herself as one of the county's best.

"Howard County has seen many great softball players and Rylee is on track to be the next one," coach Struhar said. "Pressure situations bring out the best in her, and she hits for average and power."

Showcasing her versatility at the plate, Kinsella hit for the cycle on two different occasions during the regular season — wins over Hammond and Glenelg.

On defense, she took over the shortstop duties and was an immediate impact player thanks to her "great range and one of the strongest arms around," according to Struhar.

Toni Pritchard, Glenelg. The starting third baseman for the Gladiators all four years of high school, Pritchard served as the ideal leader by example for her teammates, according to her coach Ray Gerstner.

"She was a captain in her junior and senior year and she always came prepared, from her first day of practice four years ago to her last game," Gerstner said.

Pritchard, a two-time all-county selection prior to this spring, enjoyed her best hitting season of her career. Her final batting average of .508 was over 100 points higher than her previous career high. She also added eight doubles, three triples, three home runs — a personal best for extra-base hits — to go with 24 RBI and 21 runs scored. For her career, she finishes with 24 doubles to sit second all-time in that category in Glenelg program history.

Outfield

Jordan Burk, Centennial. A returning first-team all-county player, Burk was even better this spring. Her coach, Katie Grimm, said that having Burk — now completely recovered from a prior ankle injury — hitting in the leadoff position and manning centerfield was invaluable to her team's turnaround campaign.

"Her versatility showed this year because she was fully healthy and able to play all parts of her game to full strength," Grimm said. "She has tremendous speed and is hard to get out on the base paths. Defensively, she is a fast-flying centerfielder ... she has tremendous arm strength, accuracy and situational awareness."

Burk finished with a .507 batting average and then, once on base, she had a county-best 17 stolen bases. She scored 27 runs, adding four doubles and four triples. She also came through with her lone home run of the season — a grand slam — in the Eagles' playoff game against Long Reach.

Carly Clarke, Reservoir. Voted by her teammates as the Gators' MVP this spring, Clarke was the leader that the team needed in every aspect.

"Carly was the most consistent player for our team this season offensively and defensively," coach Julie Frisvold said. "As a captain, she stepped up as the leader in the outfield and always seemed to come through under pressure at the plate."

Her tremendous speed was an asset as a fielder and a hitter, as she was able to stretch hits out to finish with five double and four triples. She also boasted an amazing amount of power for her size, smacking five home runs to finish third in the county in that category. Clarke was her team's leader in runs (35) and RBI (37), while finishing with a .429 batting average.

Among her best games was a 3-for-4 effort with a home run in a regular season win over Mt. Hebron, along with a 3-for-3 day with three RBI in a 9-6 playoff victory over Glenelg.

Courtney Colosimo, River Hill. An all-county player all four years of high school, the Hawks' centerfielder was the team's cool and confident leader of the outfield. Using her athleticism that helped her also excel as a four-year varsity cross country and indoor track performer, Colosimo was terrific at tracking down balls for outs or limiting extra bases.

At the plate, serving as River Hill's lead-off batter, Colosimo was an on-base-machine. She ranked among the top two on the team in hits (33), average (.434), walks (15) and runs scored (42). She had several big individual days, including four-hit efforts in wins over Chesapeake and Atholton.

"Courtney does a great job of putting the ball in play and then using her speed to her advantage," coach Rosenbaum said. "She had all the things you want in a lead-off batter … great patience, an ability to hit the ball all over the field and then a great eye that forced the opposing pitcher to work out there."

Utility

Evvie Buehlman, Mt. Hebron. A three-time first team all-county selection, Buehlman has the tools to excel in whatever role she is tasked with. She was one of the top pitchers in the area (6-3, 2.48 ERA), could hold down a spot in the outfield when not in the circle and served as the team's leadoff hitter.

"Evvie plays the game as it was meant to be played," said coach Struhar, pointing out that his junior was named to both the Sun and Washington Post first-team All-Metro squads this spring. "She has a great love of the game and works very hard to prepare for each and every aspect of the game."

Buehlman's .540 average ranked among the top 10 in the county this spring, as did her 35 runs scored and four home runs. Overall, she also added 24 RBI, five doubles and a triple. At pitcher, she struck out 65 batters in just under 54 innings of work.

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Buehlman has verbally committed to play at UMBC following her senior year.

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