Comfort comes easy for young Cats

Matthew Busch/The Herald
Katie Krempp (20) and Jessie Gudorf (3) return as seniors to lead a Jasper team with a wealth of veteran talent in the infield. The Wildcats will open the season tonight with a home game against North Knox as the first local softball team to kick off the 2014 season. Forest Park’s first game is Tuesday while Southridge, Northeast Dubois and Heritage Hills get started next Thursday.

Herald Sports Writer

Before last season, the first time Matt Pryor took over a softball program as head coach, he admits he was a bit unprepared.

That was at Shoals; where he led that program for two seasons in the early 2000s before becoming an assistant coach at Jasper. It was last year that he got his second go-round at head coaching.

And while he says his second coaching gig wasn’t as packed with the surprises, he was impressed with the poise of his players.

“Last year I thought the girls did a really good of job of transitioning head coaches from a couple of different philosophies with the previous head coach to myself,” Pryor said.

It’s a theme that’s remained consistent. After dropping below .500 in 2012, Jasper finished 16-13 and grabbed an opening-round win in the sectional before falling to Heritage Hills — the same squad the Cats beat 4-1 in the regular season. Pryor said his team handled the season “about as best as I could ask for.” But it’s the way they are treating the 2014 campaign — which kicks off today in a home clash against North Knox — that already has the second-year coach impressed.

“We’re definitely more prepared going into the season this season than we were last season,” Pryor said. “We’ve had a lot more turnout at open fields, a lot more swings, a lot more pitches being thrown.”

That’s good news for a group looking to replace six seniors including four-year starting pitcher Keegan Katter.

Seniors Jessie Gudorf (catcher) and Katie Krempp (first base) are the oldest of a handful of returning starters. Sophomore Paige Werner will return to her post at third base, classmate Katelyn Hedinger will spend most of her time in center field and could help out at second base, and sophomore Nicolette Eckert returns to shortstop after earning All-Big Eight Conference honors last season. Eckert (.363, 37 hits) is the team’s most productive returning hitter.

Senior Jasmine Seitz, who has played behind Katter during her high school career, will get her chance to lead the Cats as the team’s starting pitcher.

“I look forward to her really taking control of the rubber,” Pryor said.

Pryor has six girls fighting for the remaining three positions, and senior Maddie Sellers is currently penciled in at right field. The difference will be who can provide enough spark at the plate to separate themselves from an evenly talented group of fielders.

“(We’ll be set) defensively without a doubt, and I think offensively we’re going to be strong as well,” Pryor said. “It’s just those three (open) spots, (and) unfortunately you can’t play them all.”

For the Raiders, there is at least one trait the entire team is guaranteed to share: youth.

Southridge boasts a 13-girl roster with one senior after graduating five from last season’s 10-15 squad. Still, the returning players have collected a wealth of experience — and in a variety of positions.

“We have some work to do, but there is a lot of potential there,” Raider coach Stephanie Fleck said. “They have experience in the past, so that’s going to help us. We’re just going to be a really young team. We just know that we have to work together as a group this year.”

Of the six returning Raiders, all of them can, and probably will, play multiple positions. Lone senior Cassie Matheis can play any of the outfield spots. Junior Megan Stapleton will pitch as well as handle third base. Junior Taylor Uppencamp can play second base and some outfield. Sophomore Kassidy Mundy (first base and pitcher), sophomore Mallory Peter (outfield and first base), junior Brianna Lammers (outfield and infield) and junior Robin Hanebutt (shortstop and second base) all return as contributors from last year.

A host of freshmen will add to the versatility as well. Kendyl McKeough — who Fleck believes is “going to do some great things this year” — has already locked up the catcher position.

Now, the only challenge for the Raiders is adjusting all the pieces.

“I’m pretty sure (the lineup) is going to be totally different from beginning to end. It’s just a matter of who fits best at what spot,” said Fleck, whose team will launch the season next Thursday at home against Evansville North. “So during the season that’s what we’re going to figure out.”

Matthew Busch/The Herald
Megan Stapleton was part of Southridge’s three-girl rotation last season, and with two of those pitchers graduated, Stapleton returns as the most experienced hurler. Stapleton will also see time at third base for a Raider squad boasting several players with experience at multiple positions.

The key word for the Rangers is trust.

As always, the players will have to gain coach Kyle Greulich’s confidence, but Greulich, in his first year as head coach after serving as an assistant baseball coach at Forest Park for seven seasons, will need to rely on his girls to help him pick up a game he admits he’s had limited experience with.

“They definitely have been great helping me get my bearings straight, get my feet set,” Greulich said.

Five returning senior starters from last season’s 12-14 team will help ease the transition for Greulich. Pitchers Ericka Lange (7-10) and Amy Bockelman will both see time in the circle, Adria Giesler is locked in at third base and Emily Weisman returns to her spot at catcher. Senior Emily Gutgsell is positioned as the team’s shortstop with the rest of the infield comprised of newcomers — junior Taylor Hopf (first base) and sophomore Mariah Morgan (second base). Four girls will help solidify the outfield with juniors Jordan Voges, Taylor Prechtel and Katelyn Roos (the team’s second baseman last season) and sophomore Taylor Brames.

Greulich was able to watch the Ranger girls closely last season when he worked the team’s sectional, but he said for the most part, he’s entering the season with an open mind.

“(I’m) trying to do it as clean-slate as possible; kind of starting over and just seeing what everybody can do,” he said. “But it will definitely be nice to have that kind of advance look at what they did last year.”

A first-round sectional win was a welcome result for a Jeep team that won just six games last season, but after returning only a handful of starters in 2013, the Jeeps return their entire cast this spring, which should help keep the end-of-season momentum intact.

“We’ve got a good, positive attitude in practice and everybody is ready to start playing. We’ve been practicing now for about two weeks so we’re kind of anxious to get on the field and see how we’ve (improved) from last year,” Jeep coach Larry Wineinger said.

The team’s top pitcher, junior Kendra Jacob (6-9), will retain her role on the rubber for the  third straight season, with senior Katie Kluesner behind the plate. Juniors Morgan Seng (first base) and Chloe Johnson (second base) make up the right side of the infield, with senior Michelle Seitz (third base) controlling the left side of the infield along with shortstop Emily Lueken, a senior who’s returned to softball after not playing since her freshman year. Senior Taryn Friedman and sophomore Taylor Knight will see time in the outfield.

Three or four freshman could also see time for a group that lost just one senior.

“(The freshmen) can really add to our team: a little speed, a little hitting for us,” said Wineinger, whose team will open the season next Thursday at North Daviess.

First, the bad news.

Patriot coach Joe Asbury starts the season missing nine seniors — seven of them starters — who went 84-34-1 in their career and earned the program’s first sectional crown in seven years back in 2012.

The good news? The two returning starters aren’t too shabby.

“If you told me I could have a couple of kids, obviously pitching is the most important and having Kaitlin (Kralj) there to be our ace is extremely important,” Asbury said. “And then Kayala (Hoppenjans) is just so solid at third base. She’s just an exceptional defensive player and of course she led our team in batting last year.”  

Kralj, the Wabash Valley College commit with a 1.98 ERA and 22-6 record last season, and Hoppenjans, the future Olney Central College player who averaged .430 at the plate last season, will headline a group looking to keep the momentum moving forward after finishing 22-7 last year and sharing the Pocket Athletic Conference title with Gibson Southern.

“We feel good about having high expectations for our program and wanting to continue to strive to win a championship and to compete at that level,” Asbury said.

The team’s third senior, Gina Wahl — who Asbury calls “a good vocal type kid” — will pick up duties at second base and junior Madison Gogel is penciled in at first base.

After that, it’s a crew of Patriots vying for positions.

“Those four kids are our everyday starters. Other than that, we’re really going to have to wait and see,” said Asbury, whose team opens the season next Thursday on the road at Evansville Harrison. “That doesn’t mean we don’t have any talent; it just means we’re not committed on anybody else.”

Contact Joseph Fanelli

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