For most of the fall and winter high school sports seasons, several members of the Free State High softball squad entertained visions of a trip to state this spring.
That image changed slightly when, in a span of four weeks, the two most visible members of the FSHS team suffered ACL injuries while playing basketball.
With junior, all-state outfielders Maggie and Rosie Hull sidelined for the season, the Firebirds enter 2008 with qualifying for state still a priority.
"Before they got hurt, we were definitely expecting to go to state this year," Free State coach Pam Pine said. "That was definitely a devastating blow for our team, losing both of them. But they're going to help us no matter if they're on the field or not. Not having them is going to give other girls a chance to step up, and I still think we can be top three in our league and put ourselves in a good position to get to state."
At the top of the list of players the Firebirds likely will lean on are starting pitchers and sisters Catherine Smith and Megan Smith.
Catherine, a senior right-hander, is the more experienced of the two. Her power and confidence on the mound will be a huge factor in getting the Firebirds where they want to go. Megan, a sophomore lefty, is more of a finesse pitcher, relying on a variety of pitches to keep hitters off balance.
Barring something unforseen, the two figure to throw every inning for the Firebirds this season, and Pine said she would consider using one as a starter and the other as a reliever in varying ways throughout the season.
"It's nice to have our pitchers back," Pine said. "That's a huge plus, and is without question a big strength for us."
Offensively, several girls who hit in the bottom half of the lineup last season will be thrust into the top half this year. Kayley Lane (senior, shortstop) and Lexi Smith (junior, third baseman) return, along with outfielder Kelsey LeinmillerRenic (junior), utility player Allie Ice (junior) and catcher Lauren Fox (sophomore). In addition, the lineup figures to be bolstered by the addition of Lawrence High transfer Maddy Wilson (junior, catcher) and freshman Paige Rothwell.
"If it works out that our returners can pick up some of the slack offensively from the girls who played varsity last year that aren't with us this year, we'll have a chance to have a good season," Pine said.
The Firebirds will open the season with a double header March 26 at Olathe Northwest.
Across town, Lawrence High enters the 2008 season with a largely inexperienced club that will rely on newcomers to improve on last season's 4-16 record.
Four seniors return, but just two have seen significant varsity playing time during their careers.
Senior Brittaney Krug moves from third base to shortstop, and senior Kalli McClure will hold down second base, giving the Lions a solid base up the middle. Fellow seniors Natalie Wanna and Emily Lamb, who have been used sparingly in years past, also will be given a shot to crack the lineup.
"Whoever steps up and hits the ball will be in the lineup," LHS coach Reenie Stogsdill said. "We're going to really rely on some young kids, but I think we're going to surprise some people and I think we're going to be better than most people expect."
Sophomore Jamie Jarrett will slide into Krug's third base slot, and Southwest Junior High freshmen Lauren Massey (pitcher) and Kristen Bell (catcher/utility) also figure to see substantial playing time. In addition, Jasmyn Turner, fresh off of her run to a state title with the LHS girls basketball team, also is expected to contribute.
The biggest question for the Lions is on the mound. With sophomore starter Kacie Welborn out for an undetermined amount of time with an injury to her non-pitching hand, Stogsdill said pitching will continue to be an area of concern for LHS.
"A big key for us is if the two freshmen (Massey and Bell) can step right in and have a big impact for us," Stogsdill said.
That becomes particularly true with Massey, who may be asked to toe the rubber early on.
LHS will open the season March 27 against defending Class 6A state champion Olathe East.
"Everyone in the softball world knows Olathe East," Stogsdill said. "I'd rather play them early than late, especially this year because I think it'll give us a good read on where we stand."