Youth movement has Howard County softball on the rise

Tim Schwartz
Contact ReporterHoward County Times sports

The numbers and records books tell the story of a snakebitten Howard County softball league.

A county team has won a regional title 33 times — Mt. Hebron has the most with 10 and River Hill in 2015 is the most recent — and 12 of those teams advanced to the state championship game. Atholton leads the way with four title-game appearances, the last being in 2008, while Howard is the last team to get there in 2011.

But only one team from Howard County has ever won a state championship, and it took one of the state’s greatest players to carry them there. That was Hammond’s 2007 squad led by then-sophomore pitcher and slugger Stephanie Speierman, who threw a perfect game and struck out a championship-record 19 batters in a 4-0 victory in the 2A final.

It took a special talent like Speierman — who was a four-time Howard County Player of the Year and two-time Baltimore Sun All-Metro Player of the Year before pitching for the University of Michigan, which won Big Ten titles in each of her four years there — and an exceptional supporting cast to hoist the championship trophy.

The recipe for success on the biggest stage, according to River Hill coach Marni Rosenbaum, is exactly what Hammond had 11 years ago: a dominant player 43 feet from home plate.

“I think the biggest thing in softball is you have to have a pitcher,” said Rosenbaum, who is entering her 13th season and is the longest-tenured public school coach in the county. “There’s a group of us every year that are always at the state semifinals and the state championship games to support the other teams, and having that pitching is the No. 1 thing. Throughout the years we’ve always had pretty decent pitching in the county, but the other counties just have that pitcher who takes it to the next level.”

Rosenbaum recalled her 2013 team that won a regional title and faced Northern-Calvert in the state semifinals amidst its streak of eight consecutive state championships from 2008 to 2015. The Hawks had all the right pieces that season, but against the Patriots they failed to score a run against their ace and ultimately lost, 1-0, on a walk-off in the seventh inning.

So, even with the influx of youth throughout the county — 18 of last year’s 24 All-County players are back this season, including nine underclassmen and 11 first-team selections — is there a team with championship potential?

The early favorites entering the year, according to the county coaches, appear to be the same teams that finished atop the league last season. Howard and Glenelg, co-county champions in 2017, return eight and five starters, respectively, while Marriotts Ridge and Reservoir have their entire starting lineup back.

Centennial won 12 games last season and will have five starting sophomores, including first-team All-County catcher Olivia Reese (.433 avg., 25 RBI in 2017) and shortstop Lauren Marcotte, who led the league with a .697 batting average, 42 runs and nine home runs and set a state record with 10 triples as a freshman. Marcotte has verbally committed to Penn State and was recently named one of the country’s high school players to watch by USA Today.

Hammond has eight starters back a year after finishing .500, and River Hill, Atholton and Mt. Hebron shouldn’t be counted out, either.

But the Lions have been the team to beat for the last few years and return some of the best players in the league. They have won at least 14 county games each of the last three seasons, and with seniors outfielder Shanya Gordon (.457 avg.) and infielder Katie Unkle (.333 avg.) back in the fold, another county title isn’t out of the question. They also have junior outfielder Julia Colton, a slap hitter who batted .466 near the bottom of the order last year.

“Any team that wins at the state level has pitching, defense and offense working for them,” Lions coach Chuck Rice said. “I think you need to be solid in all those levels to be successful. I think our biggest challenge is that no game should be too big and to stay within our capabilities.”

Their biggest question mark is at pitcher. Howard lost 2017 Howard County Times Player of the Year Ally Wieman to graduation and now will turn to sophomore Becky Merson, who performed well last year with a 2.20 ERA and 37 strikeouts in 35 innings against lesser competition, with freshman Samantha Hobert backing her up. Rice said his team should be in the mix if they can allow five runs or less per game.

“That sounds like a lot, but I’ve got a lot coming back and quite a few big hitters,” he said. “We’ll be competitive, but it’s a very young team.”

While Rice is in wait-and-see mode, he said Marriotts Ridge “has probably from top to bottom all the makings of a championship team,” and he wouldn’t be surprised to see the Mustangs go undefeated against county competition.

Marriotts Ridge coach Renard Parson agrees.

“A lot of our goals are not only to win the county but to try to compete for a state title,” he said, “and I think the way our team is built we have a good chance.”

The Mustangs have arguably the league’s best ace and No. 2 starter. Seniors Mikayla Barnard (5-3, 2.71 ERA, 60 K, 49 IP in 2017) and Romy Lindahl (5-1, 3.84 ERA 42 K, 34 IP) have the experience and talent to carry the team, but they can hit, too. Junior Molly Nies was third in the league with a .574 batting average last season and will bat in the middle of the order alongside sophomore Madi Costigan, who also had a stellar 2017 with a .449 average.

“Pitching wins softball games and we have a lot of quality pitching this year,” Parson said.

Glenelg might be the only other team with an elite pitcher and a potential player of the year candidate in the field. Junior Amy Stetser was a first-team All-County pitcher a year ago after striking out 88 batters in 84 innings to pair with a shiny 2.81 ERA and 10-4 record, and senior catcher Katie Dustin has done a little bit of everything. The University of Maryland commit had the second-best batting average last spring (.671) and collected a league-best 12 doubles.

Gladiators coach Ray Gerstner, who is 11 wins shy of 100 in his career, said one of his team’s strengths is flexibility.

“The new varsity players this year are filling in the gaps nicely,” he said. “Several of our players are utility players, which allows us to be a little more flexible depending on the situation. ... Our biggest determining factors of success for our team will be our pitching and hustle and determination.”

Centennial could make the jump if its sophomore class continues to blossom. Depth is their biggest potential issue, so staying healthy will be key to their success.

“This [sophomore] group, along with the junior and senior we have are extremely talented,” Eagles coach Katie Grimm said. “We just have to show other teams that. Maturing together and working on team chemistry are big priorities right now.”

Hammond may not have the top-notch pitching, but coaches around the league like what they have to offer at the plate. Junior shortstop Taylor Liguori, who has verbally committed to the University of Maryland, had a strong .508 batting average and nine home runs in 2017 and is among the top power hitters in the league.

“[We] had a very solid hitting team last year, and we hope to improve over last season,” Golden Bears coach Brad Speierman said. “I believe the bottom of our lineup has improved and will continue to improve throughout the season. I hope that once we hit our stride we’ll have the potential to be dangerous at the plate one through nine.”

Reservoir has one of the most experienced rosters in the league and boasts four seniors — Hunter Little, Breann Smith, Holly Daum and Emma Bailey — who batted .428 or better last year.

“All four players bring different skills and leadership qualities to the team, and if they bring the team together we can be competitive this season,” Gators coach Julie Frisvold said.

Vikings coach Mark Graydon said his team’s pitching will be improved this season and they should surprise some teams. Atholton and River Hill also have experienced rosters and will be competitive against the league’s best teams.

Long Reach has a small roster so staying healthy will be key, but coach Melissa Boardman says her team has the experience and talent to make a move up the county standings.

Around the Diamond

Here’s a snapshot at the 13 local programs:

Atholton

2017 record: 5-12 county, 5-14 overall

Coach: Allyson O’Neill (first season)

Returning starters: 5

Top players: Seniors Patty Drumheller (P/OF) and Sydnee Ruley (OF); juniors Sydney Rhodes (P/IF) and Juliet Nierle (1B).

Coach’s report: “Since I am new to coaching Atholton varsity this year, I am really excited for the upcoming season. I am hoping to be competitive in every game we play. Almost all of the players are returning from the team last year and I think this is going to be a huge benefit for us. These girls have experience at the varsity level and I think will be able to compete with the best teams out there.”

Centennial

2017 record: 10-6, 12-9

Coach: Katie Grimm (seventh season)

Returning starters: 7

Top players: Senior Gracie Rockefeller (1B); junior Grace Bennett (3B); sophomores Olivia Reese (C) and Lauren Marcotte (SS).

Coach’s report: “We are returning a really strong core group of girls. We don’t have a lot of depth in several positions, so staying healthy will be our biggest priority this year. This group is very special, as they are mostly underclassmen, and I’m excited to have them for a couple more years. I’m hoping to see the sophomore group mature as players this year now that they know the ropes. If they can play with the intensity and maturity of juniors and seniors, we will be good to go. Our captains, being the old ladies on the team, will be relied on to help them transition.”

Glenelg

2017 record: 15-2, 17-6

Coach: Ray Gerstner (eighth season)

Returning starters: 5

Top players: Seniors Katie Dustin (C) and Katie McIntyre (CF); junior Amy Stetser (P).

Coach’s report: “The coach’s expectations, as well as the girls’, are always high entering the season. We have a fairly young team this year, as we had eight seniors graduate last year, but we have five returning starters. We will be learning to play as a team to start the season, but then we expect to go through the rest of the season full steam ahead.”

Hammond

2017 record: 9-7, 9-9

Coach: Brad Speierman (ninth season)

Returning starters: 8

Top players: Senior Bethany Hewitt (3B/2B); juniors Taylor Ligouri (SS) and Brittany Brewer (P/OF).

Coach’s report: “This year’s team is one of the best teams I’ve been involved with in the 13 years I’ve been coaching at Hammond. We have a solid group of softball players who are pushing each other in practice and I’m excited to see them on the field. We have a great mix of upper and lowerclassmen on the team. Senior captain Bethany Hewitt will anchor our team as our most experienced leader. She has been a four-year captain who sets the tone for dedication, determination and hard work. We return junior Taylor Liguori at shortstop. Taylor was first-team All-County and led the county in home runs with nine. Junior Brittany Brewer will return to the circle for the third year. Brittany pitched in every game for the Bears last season and was one of the top hitters for our team. Sophomore Makenzie Brooks returns this season splitting time between third base and catcher. Makenzie was one of our strongest all-around players last season as a freshman and has shown a lot of growth over the offseason. Juniors Amanda Weirich and Armonie Lane return adding strong bats in the middle of the lineup and great gloves with a lot of versatility in the field. They will most likely open the season anchoring the right side or our infield, but both are utility players who could find themselves playing almost anywhere on the field if the need arises.”

Howard

2017 record: 15-2, 17-5

Coach: Chuck Rice (seventh season)

Returning starters: 8

Top players: Seniors Katie Unkle (2B) and Shanya Gordon (CF).

Coach’s report: “Losing our Player of the Year Ally Wieman and being very young on the mound will really be a test for our young team. I wouldn’t say that it’s a rebuilding year because we bring back eight starters, but we will have to work through some minor bumps as the season goes on. Sophomore Becky Merson will be our premier pitcher with a freshman, Samantha Hobert, backing her up.”

Long Reach

2017 record: 6-8, 6-10

Coach: Melissa Boardman (ninth season)

Returning starters: 6

Top players: Senior Rachel Jacavage (SS); juniors Kamryn Walker (CF) and Hailey Ramberg (C).

Coach’s report: “We have so much experience on our team but we are small. I need my 11 girls to come together and truly shine. Everyone has to do their part every game to get wins, but they are all very capable of doing that. We are so strong offensively and defensively, but we have trouble with the mental part. This is the strongest team Long Reach has had in awhile, so as long as they go out there and give their all, the wins will come!”

Marriotts Ridge

2017 record: 12-3, 14-5

Coach: Renard Parson (first season, fourth overall)

Returning starters: 9

Top players: Seniors Mikayla Barnard (P/utility) and Romy Lindahl (P/utility); junior Molly Nies (2B); sophomores Megan Hughes (P/OF), Madi Costigan (P/IF), Alex Lindahl (P/3B) and Grace Tolle (C/3B).

Coach’s report: “This is by far the most talented team that Marriotts Ridge has ever had. There is an awesome blend of great pitching (with depth), a very explosive and versatile offense, and I have plenty of defensive options. I expect to put a very competitive team on the field and we are looking to capture the school’s first county title. Our team goal is to work hard and for each player to get a little better each day.”

Mt. Hebron

2017 record: 7-7, 7-9

Coach: Mark Graydon (second season)

Returning starters: 7

Top players: Senior Megan Holquist (C); juniors Kieran Davis (1B), Eliza Munns (SS) and Maddie Wright (P); sophomore Bri Hoskinson (P).

Coach’s report: “This year’s team is well balanced. We have equal representation from all of our classes and a very good incoming freshmen class. I believe we will compete favorably this year and surprise a lot of the teams we played last year with the improvements in the team.”

Oakland Mills

2017 record: 0-15, 0-17

Coach: Jessica McKay (first season)

Returning starters: 2

Top players: Junior Micah Brown (P/1B); sophomores Tamya Bydune (P) and Tamia Bdyune (P/1B).

Coach’s report: “I am excited to have the opportunity to set up into the varsity coaching position this year. We are starting a brand new program here. We are building a foundation of strength, power, skills and passion. We are looking forward to a great first season together. ... We have been working hard on our pitching this offseason. Many good things will be coming out of our program this season and in the future!”

Reservoir

2017 record: 8-7, 13-8

Coach: Julie Frisvold (11th season)

Returning starters: 9

Top players: Seniors Holly Daum (OF), Hunter Little (IF), Bre Smith (1B) and Emma Bailey (P/IF).

Coach’s report: “This season is all about teamwork and connecting on the field to make things happen. We really want to focus on the mini successes on the field, including on-base average and executing the routine plays. In order for this team to find success, we have to center our focus on the team and not the individual. If the team can fight hard for seven innings and find the positive in any situation, we can be very competitive this season.”

River Hill

2017 record: 8-8, 9-12

Coach: Marni Rosenbaum (13th season)

Returning starters: 6

Top players: Senior Crystal Lin (OF); juniors Jenna Kenyon (P/SS) and Delanie Vintz (C/3B); sophomores Quinn Kindbom (1B/P) and Annabel McCullough (1B/P/OF).

Coach’s report: “The 2018 River Hill softball team is continuing to build from the past few years. We have a solid core of returning players and freshmen that have a lot of experience. I am excited to see how we grow throughout the season and we look to challenge the top teams in the county.”

Wilde Lake

2017 record: 2-13, 3-14

Coach: Tee Dronenburg (eighth season)

Returning starters: 5

Top players: Seniors Stella Johnson (IF) and Adanya Koger-Hobson (C); junior Kasey Baird (P); sophomores Jasper Killian (SS) and Rachel Van Osdel (1B).

Coach’s report: “Last year we graduated five seniors (four starters) including our first-team All-County catcher Faith Leslie. It’s hard to replace a player like Faith — both with her natural softball ability and upbeat personality. Fortunately, we are very lucky to have another awesome senior class, this time with seven players. Our team is made up of a group of girls who get along on and off the field. They are extremely positive, fully support each other, and they have a lot of softball experience together. I’m looking forward to seeing how that comes together on the field.”

Chapelgate

2017 record: 5-4 IAAM B, 7-7

Coach: John Isaac (15th season)

Returning starters: 6

Top players: Juniors Emily Venkatesan (P) and Grade Edwards (SS/P); sophomores Jess Lucas (CF) and Ellie Henneburg (C).

Coach’s report: “This is a team that has been through a painful rebuilding year and has high hopes to compete for the IAAM B Conference championship. We have great speed, three returning All-Stars, strong and deep pitching and good chemistry.”

timschwartz@baltsun.com

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