Pitching may be an area of concern for the Lawrence High and Free State High softball teams this spring, but, fortunately, excitement and anticipation won’t be.
While the Lions return five key members of last year’s squad and welcome nearly a dozen newcomers to the varsity level, the Firebirds return nine players, including all-state outfielders Rosie and Maggie Hull, who missed last season with knee injuries.
However, of those 14 returning players, only a handful are pitchers.
“Right now, we have one pitcher,” LHS coach Reenie Stogsdill said. “So the load is going to fall on (sophomore) Lauren Massey and, in fastpitch, you’re only as good as your pitcher can make you. It would be really nice if we could find another pitcher who could pick up some innings for us.”
On the Free State side of things, coach Pam Pine said she was astonished that only four of the 42 girls who tried out were pitchers. Like Stogsdill, Pine has an undisputed No. 1 pitcher in junior Megan Smith, but a lot of questions after that.
“Pitching is always the key to softball,” Pine said. “If we can keep the ball in play and do well offensively, score a lot of runs and play solid defense, I think we’ll do fine.”
A big reason for that is the return of the Hull twins.
Pine said their presence alone — not to mention their talent — has lifted the spirits and expectations of everyone in the Free State dugout.
“They just bring so much to any team,” Pine said. “They’re such great kids. Everything they do, everything they say is just such a positive influence. They are so pumped up about this season. They feel cheated (because they missed last season) and they want revenge.”
Adding the two seniors into the lineup — both offensively and defensively — fills several holes for the Firebirds. It also takes some of the pressure off of those around them and opens the door for big seasons from several members of the supporting cast.
Seniors Lexi Smith and Ali Ice, junior Paige Rothwell and freshmen Alex Hill and Samantha O’Brien figure to hold down the spots in the infield, while senior Kelsey Leinmiller-Rennick likely will join the Hull sisters in the outfield.
Junior catcher Lauren Fox returns behind the plate and seniors Sierra Dixon and Maddy Wilson, along with juniors Sara Hanson and Emily Smith and sophomore pitcher Christy Wagner, provide Pine with depth and options on offense and defense.
“I think our strength is going to be our offense, but I do think we’ll be a really good defensive team,” Pine said. “Everyone’s real positive this year and I think we have a really good chance of doing well.”
The Lions are equally optimistic but for different reasons.
Instead of tossing around words like “state champs” and “powerhouse,” the Lions are focusing on taking another step forward in rebuilding the program to where it once was.
“The last two years have been really down years for LHS softball and we want to get that winning tradition back,” Stogsdill said. “We have good kids in our program and I’m really excited about all of the freshmen in the program, so I think we’ll be headed in the right direction.”
Leading them there will be returning players Massey, junior shortstop Jamie Jarrett, junior outfielders Jasmyn Turner and Jamie Morgison and sophomore catcher Kristin Bell.
All five gained valuable experience last season and will be looked to for leadership this season. So, too, will seniors Mariah Vaughn and Angelena Ross, two players who played junior varsity last year but will suit up with the varsity this year.
“Those are two good kids who can show some leadership whether they’re on the field or off the field,” Stogsdill said.
In addition, a pair of freshmen — infielders Mallory Reynolds and Lauren Burn — along with two sophomores — Kasey Waite and Kelsey Broadwell — will be counted on to add pop to the Lions’ lineup.
“We’re going to be young again,” Stogsdill said. “But I think some of our young girls are going to work as hard as anybody we have.”
The Lions open the season at 4:15 p.m. today at Shawnee Mission North. Free State opens with a home doubleheader against SM East at 4:15 p.m. today.