Seven-year coach Dave Vitagliano isn't used to feeling so optimistic about his team's chances. For the first time, Vitagliano thinks the Raiders have a legitimate shot at a county championship. It's easy to see why.
Atholton returns eight starters from a young team that came on late, winning its last three games to finish with a respectable 9-11 record, including 7-7 against the county.
Sophomore pitcher Kim Ruprecht is the key returnee. After pitching all but one inning of last season, Ruprecht has improved her velocity and her control.
"We have a pitcher who can throw strikes and a defense that can make the plays," Vitagliano said. "Kim knows she doesn't have to strike out 12 to win a game."
The Raiders should be solid defensively, beginning with senior catcher Amy Mina. The infield of junior Stacie Vollentine (1B), sophomore Chrissy Gavin (2B), junior Stacey Williams (SS) and junior Carrie Rowe (3B) is back.
The big question mark for Atholton is offense. The Raiders batted only .248 and averaged a modest seven runs a game last spring, and except for Mina (.333, 23 RBI) and Rowe -- who blossomed (.393, 11 RBI) after coming up in midseason from the junior varsity -- their attack is unproven. Gavin (18 steals) proved a capable leadoff hitter, but she needs to reach base more often.
Vitagliano is hoping for an offensive boost from sophomore RF Kelly Stewart, who hit .640 with 35 RBI last year for the junior varsity. Stewart also has an excellent arm. She should lead an outfield that includes returning seniors Lindsay Greenbaum (LF) and Tessa Ward and freshman Leah Nichols.
The beat goes on for the Eagles, perennial contenders who seem to replace key players with ease every year. This year, they will have to replace pitcher Jodi Meitl and RF Becky Joeckel, four-year stars who were two of the county's top players.
Sophomore pitcher Kim May could be one of the county's next stars. Although she only pitched in two games last year, May has several years of fast-pitch experience and should challenge hitters immediately.
"She [May] has a real nice fastball and she targets the ball real well," said coach Dale Huting, whose team was 19-1 last season and won the county title. "It's just a matter of her getting into some games and pitching to some live hitters."
May should have a fine infield behind her, and her battery mate, senior Keri Chichester is the league's best. Chichester hit .411 last year, drove in a team-high 24 runs, threw out five base stealers and committed just one error in 20 games.
Senior shortstop Kelly Butler starts for the fourth year and brings proven offensive (.432, 23 runs scored) and defensive (27 assists, 24 putouts) tools to the field. Junior 2B Jeannine Lee (.370) should produce runs, while returning sophomore 3B Marci Kunkel should solidify the left side of the infield. Huting also is looking for big things from sophomore 1B Michele Dugan, a tall, agile newcomer with considerable off-season experience.
"Defensively, we'll be stronger on the right side of the infield because of her [Dugan]," Huting said. "We're still trying to firm up who's in the outfield."
Except for returning LF Kathy Gallagher (.354), the outfield picture is cluttered. Senior Meghan Seewagen saw limited playing time last year, as did senior Jenny Willigan. Sophomores Kelly Garrity, Jenny West and Karin Watchinski are up from the junior varsity battling for the right field job.
"It's a young team that will get strong leadership from Kelly and Keri," Huting said. "I think we'll be competitive with anyone we play. I see us right in the hunt."
The Gladiators used a nice blend of power, speed, defense and smarts to challenge Centennial last year for the county title, when they went 15-3 overall and 12-2 in the county.
That combination makes them the team to beat this year.
"It's a decent program with decent kids. We don't have any Jodi Meitl on the team, but we have people who catch the ball. If we don't catch it, we're going to lose some games," coach Chuck Struhar said.
Glenelg has an impressive collection of talent.
Returning junior first baseman Jodi Kielman (.466, 30 RBI) already is the league's most dangerous hitter. Then there's four-year shortstop Lory Wineman (.534, 32 runs, 37 steals, three errors in 72 chances), maybe the county's best all-around player. Then there's returning senior CF Joy Younce (.326, 21 steals, one error in 18 games). Then there's returning junior 2B Karyn Duff, a defensive whiz who surprised everyone by hitting .510 last year, and becoming the league's toughest out.
The Gladiators have depth in the outfield as well. Seniors Lauren Doyle (LF) and Donna Snyder (RF) probably will start, and sophomore Susan Geisler is available as one of the county's better reserves.
It's the pitching that has Struhar especially excited. The Gladiators lost All-County pitcher Lisa Martin to graduation, but they have two promising arms this spring.
Junior Emily Kessler lost only one game on the junior varsity last year, and junior Lyndsay Smyth, a transfer from New Jersey, has been so impressive that she figures to start.
"She [Smyth] is almost a clone of Lisa Martin, maybe a shade faster," Struhar said. "She's very dedicated to pitching, and she's already good at it. I didn't think Emily would be this good at this stage, and I didn't know we'd have Lyndsay. We've got most of the holes filled now."
The Bears have enough talent and experience to improve on last year's 6-11 (6-8 in county) record. Once again, the season boils down to questionable pitching and an offense that probably will struggle to score runs.
Senior pitcher Ashley Scott returns, and she needs to harness her control. "She throws hard and has a nice breaking ball, but she still doesn't have the consistent control she needs. Like everybody else, we're going to live and die with our pitching," coach Dave Guetler said.
Hammond hit a respectable .292 last year, but any improvement may be offset by the loss of outfielder Casey Reeves, who was second on the team in hitting before moving out of the state.
Senior shortstop Jennifer Garlick (.358, 20 runs) starts for the third straight year. The Bears need her to drive in more runs. Junior 3B Jessica Cyran (.316) should seal the left side of the infield defensively and should become an offensive force. Senior 1B Kelly Waggoner starts for the third year, and second base features a three-way battle between Tanja Owe, Amber Duckworth and Melissa Rock, all up from the junior varsity.
Junior catcher Amy Nestor (.300), Hammond's long-ball threat, returns for her third season. Senior, three-year player Becky Snyder (CF), senior Hillary Hines and freshman Candace Holmes should handle most of the outfield duty.
"We'll be OK at the key positions, but we're missing some offense after losing Casey," Guetler said. "If our pitching holds up, we should be OK. We should be somewhere in the middle of the pack."
The Lions have another good blend of experience, speed and defense.
Seniors Sharon Ford (CF) and Kerry Semmont (SS) are the foundation of the team. Ford, a four-year starter, hit .360 and played terrific defense during her All-County season last spring. Semmont is a four-year starter who shows flashes of brilliance in the field and at the plate. She was second on the team in extra-base hits last year.
"If Kerry gets more consistent [in the field], it will really help us," coach Dave Vezzi said. "She's an outstanding player with a stronger arm than most kids."
Junior LF Emily Moore and sophomore RF Amanda Hart complete the outfield. Moore, a three-year starter, hit .340 last year.
Offense wasn't the problem for Howard last year. The Lions averaged 16 runs, yet blew a few 10-run leads thanks to suspect pitching and sloppy defense. For the Lions to improve on last year's 7-11 (6-8 in county) record and contend for a title, they first need senior pitcher Terri Townslay to put control problems behind her.
"She [Townslay] spent part of the winter at a pitching clinic. Her mechanics are a lot better, and she has a lot more confidence," Vezzi said. Senior catcher Patty Miller, a four-year starter, should help Townslay's development.
Senior third-baseman Staci Brownley, a third-year player, gives the Lions a proven glove, but the right side of the infield is untested. Senior Amy Nichols and sophomore Jessica Girshmen probably will fill the 2B and 1B positions.
"At this point, I feel a lot more confident about our chances than I did last year," Vezzi said.