For most teams, graduating three all-county players, bringing in five freshmen and returning just four starters would signal a rebuilding season. Howard softball, however, is not like most teams.
Backed by senior ace Ally Weiman and returning all-county selections Shanya Gordon and Emma Braswell, along with a highly regarded freshmen class that will make an immediate impact for coach Chuck Rice’s club, the reigning county champions are primed for another run toward the top of the standings.
“Are we the team to beat? I think that’s only because we have Ally,” Rice said. “We’re going to make mistakes. We’re young. Ally is our only senior. We’re going to be real young in years coming and if we can compete this year that’s great.”
Wieman was one of the best pitchers in the county last season, recording 85 strikeouts, allowing just 28 earned runs in 71 innings pitched, while finishing with an 8-3 record and 2.76 ERA. The senior was a Player of the Year candidate last season and will no doubt vie for the honor at the end of this spring as well.
“We have a lot of talented freshmen, but we also lost a lot of talented seniors last year,” Wieman said. “I am really hoping they can really step up in these big roles and I am just going to go out and pitch. Hopefully we can combine as a team and do as well as last year.”
Along with Wieman, Gordon and Braswell, the Lions also return junior Katie Unkle and sophomore Julia Colton, who hit .500 and .375 last season, respectively. Freshmen Emily Polimeni and Paige Eakes are primed for breakout seasons, with each splitting time between third base and outfield.
“I was shocked with the talent we have coming in,” Wieman said. “Having our sophomores, our junior and freshmen — if everybody steps up I really think this team can go far. We have a lot of talent between the bats, between the defense, the offense, the infield. I think we are really going to make a run.”
Howard not only looks sharp in the field and in the circle, but also returns the top of its lineup from last season.
“As the season goes on, I think it’s going to get really competitive,” Rice said. “If you can come out of the gate really strong you might give yourself a little bit of a buffer… Last year we got out of the gate pretty quick. We had quality players too, but this year during the preseason we already had our first preseason game against Spalding and we did real well against them so that’s a good sign too — pitching, hitting all the way around.”
The Lions are determined to come out as county champs no doubt, but their eyes are also set for another 4A North Region matchup with perennial power Sherwood. The Warriors have defeated Howard three-straight times in the playoffs, including last season’s region semifinal victory, which saw the program win its 100th consecutive game.
“That’s always our goal, to come back and Sherwood has always been the thorn in our side since we went to 4A,” Rice said. “Just to get out of our own region we had to go through the best and if you want to be the best you’ve got to beat the best and right now they are the best.”
Mt. Hebron was the only county team that handed Howard a loss last season, but the Vikings will have a new look with first-year coach Mark Graydon taking over for Chuck Struhar.
Although Mt. Hebron graduated first-team all-county pitcher Evvie Buehlman and infielder Rachel Cadigan, it returns first-teamer Rylee Kinsella and second-teamer Meghan Holquist, who are back for their senior and junior seasons, respectively.
Kinsella, who recorded 25 runs, 39 hits, and 33 runs batted in last season, will likely split time between shortstop and pitcher this season, while Holquist (catcher/third base) is coming off a season where she had 19 runs scored, 34 hits and 28 RBI.
The two will be captains for Mt. Hebron, which will once again fight for a spot at the top of the league standings.
Marriotts Ridge and Glenelg are two teams that will also likely jostle for top positioning in the county, as the Mustangs return their top two pitchers in Mikayla Barnard and Romy Linadhl, while the Gladiators bring back all-county players Katie McIntyre (outfield) and Katie Dustin (catcher) for their junior seasons, along with senior second baseman Katie Grimm.
“I think Marriotts Ridge is a good team, and I never put it past them, Hebron or Glenelg,” Rice said. “They always have good feeder programs. We just happen to have a good feeder program too. So I think there will be a county race again like there was last year.”
Long Reach, which defeated Glenelg in the 3A East quarterfinals last season, is looking to build off a solid 2016 season. Although the Lightning graduated their top pitcher in first-team all-county selection Isa Carunungan, coach Melissa Boardman returns seven players from last year’s team, including co-captains Stephanie Moy and Rachel Jacavage.
“We are a very small team this year and [the returner's] experience is going to be crucial for success,” Boardman said. “For us to be successful we have to work together and bring each other up. We also have to be consistent throughout the lineup.”
Centennial will see Long Reach, Mt. Hebron and Marriotts Ridge early in the season, which will be a good barometer of where the team stands.
The Eagles graduated Player of the Year Emily Allen, but return four key players in seniors Celina Jensen (third base/pitcher), Carrie Strott (first base), junior Gracie Rockefeller (outfield) and sophomore Grace Bennett (infield), while also bringing in a talented freshmen class who will be early contributors.
“We have a very young team and I think this stretch will be a good test of their mental toughness and readiness to play against much older players,” Centennial coach Katie Grimm said. “I think the county is going to be very competitive overall. I’m looking forward to having every game we play being a battle. You can’t take any team for granted in this county anymore.”
Wilde Lake, Hammond and Reservoir are young teams which return most of its top players from a season ago.
The Gators bring back a deep junior class, which is highlighted by second-team all-county centerfielder Holly Daum, who recorded 24 runs, 25 hits, 13 RBI and a .424 average last season.
The Golden Bears return six starters and a bulk of their roster are underclassmen. Taylor Liguori had a solid freshman season for Hammond, as she had the third-highest batting average last year at .610 to earn second-team all-county honors. She is back at short, while junior Bethany Hewitt and senior Kelly Smith return behind the plate and at second base, respectively.
The Wildecats brought in 12 new players last season and have returned nearly everyone from last season’s club. Senior Faith Leslie earned first-team all-county honors last season and she, along with senior outfielder Sydney McNamara will lead Wilde Lake heading into 2017.
“I think there is a more even distribution of talent across the county this season than in some other seasons in recent memory,” Wildecats coach Kristina Dronenburg said. “There are a number of teams who could pull away from the pack and take the county title — 2017 is going to be exciting.”
Atholton is also projected to have a strong team heading into 2017, as first-year coach Susan Ericksen takes over the program. The Raiders graduated first-team third baseman Miranda Thompson, but return a solid infield with seniors Allison Orlosky, Bethy Medina and junior Patty Drumheller.
River Hill, meanwhile, is looking to surprise teams in 2017 after finishing toward the bottom of the county standings last season. Coach Marni Rosenbaum touts just 11 players on the roster, but has solid newcomers including freshmen Quinn Kindbom, Annabel McCollough — who will split time between pitcher, first base and outfield — and sophomore Jenna Kenyon (pitcher/shortstop) who missed her freshman season due to injury. River Hill also returns five starters, including senior captains Sara Miller (centerfield) and Hannah Brown (catcher).
On the private school side, Chapelgate is aiming for a fourth consecutive trip to the Interscholastic Athletic Association of Maryland B conference championship. It returns six of eight players from both of those teams, including IAAM B All-Star Grace Edwards. The Yellowjackets also add sophomore pitcher Emily Venkatesan, who missed last season due to a torn ACL, along with freshman catcher Ellie Henneberg and freshman first baseman Sarah Brewer.
The IAAM B conference was realigned and added five new teams this spring. A big matchup early for Chapelgate is against defending B Conference champions Maryvale on April 5.