GREENFIELD — Jason Stewart never gave Murphy’s Law a second thought before last season. To the veteran Greenfield-Central softball coach, it was just an old adage. Nothing more. Nothing less.
At least that was the case until last spring.
After the phrase literally tore apart his softball team from start to finish in 2016, Stewart can honestly say, he’s a believer. If anything can go wrong, it will — and it sure did for the Cougars.
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First, the team’s ace pitcher Darcie Huber and her 300-plus strikeouts required preseason elbow surgery, which turned Stewart’s projected rotation upside down.
Next, his starting catcher, Maria Kihega broke her wrist. What followed ripped his lineup inside out as another four starters lost time with their own afflictions.
If injury reports were a requirement in high school softball, Stewart would have issued one nearly daily. Instead, he adapted on the fly, shuffled players all over the diamond, reconfigured his lineup, and waited for the team’s luck to change.
What he didn’t realize at the time was despite the onslaught of negatives, the positives were brewing.
“Last year was frustrating obviously with the injuries to Darcie and other players, but in a way it actually helped us a lot for this year,” said Stewart whose team finished 17-10 a year ago. “It gave us a jump start in not having (Darcie) and getting other girls a lot of playing time and innings.”
With Huber now off at Ball State University, the Cougars return this season better from their woes, more experienced and almost entirely intact.
Two years removed from their record-setting 27-win season and a sectional championship, the team is optimistic, especially with seven starters back, including senior third baseman Morganne Denny, an IPFW recruit.
The catalyst behind Greenfield-Central’s 199 runs scored and .345 team batting average, Denny was off the charts with a bat in her hands.
She led the county with a .526 average, crushed 11 home runs, which was third-best in the state and first in the Hoosier Heritage Conference. She drove in 36 runs and had 11 doubles with 42 runs scored, while recording a hit in every game but one to earn an ICGSA Third-Team All-State selection.
“I think we’ve gotten even stronger than last year, and our usual top hitters have gotten better,” Denny said. “I think our lineup and our defense has gotten a lot better. I can’t wait for this season to start.”
While the competition would prefer not seeing Denny any time soon, if they do decide to pitch around her this season, she will have ample backup.
At first base, senior Michaela Ballman, who was named All-HHC along with Denny, hit .455 with 26 RBI and eight homers. Kihega, a senior, carried a .373 average with 21 RBI last year, while junior Sydney Williams posted a .289 average as a designated player.
“We’ve got some kids that can hit it,” Stewart said. “With those players back, we have four bona fide, I think, pretty good hitters. We have some other kids, too, that have potential to have good seasons. It’s just showing it on a consistent basis.”
Among those contributors are senior Codey Miller (.329) and sophomores Emily Francis and Kinzie Bradley in the middle infield. Seniors Sara Morris and Casey McDaniels and sophomore Lexi Rankin are in line for time in the outfield.
The Cougars depth at catcher allows for fluidity in the lineup as Kihega could shift to first base while her sister Samantha, a freshman, and sophomore Keryna Barrett will roam the backstop and the outfield when needed.
“We’re as deep at catcher than I’ve ever been,” Stewart said. “That’s a tough problem, but a good problem to have.”
Having 15 pitching wins back is an added luxury for the Cougars. Ballman (3-2, 3.62 ERA) and senior Makayla Durick (6-3, 2.39 ERA) will serve as the team’s 1A and 1B in the circle.
Williams, who is sidelined with an elbow injury, will assist as a hitter in early April while targeting a mid-May timetable to resume pitching. She was 6-3 last season with a 3.76 ERA. Combined the trio struck out 103 batters and walked 20.
“We’re not going to get the strikeouts that we’ve had in the last few years, but if they’re keeping the ball down and giving our defense a chance, they’re going to keep us in a lot of ball games,” Stewart said.
Denny said she believes the Cougars’ hurlers are up to the challenge.
“Last year when we didn’t have Darcie, all the pitchers had to step up. I feel like they get it now and know what it takes,” Denny said. “I think the pitchers are ready to push it. They can take us a long way, and I think we can really go far this season.”
Back to the sectional finals where they lost to Pendleton Heights 5-1 is the primary goal. Missing out on their fourth sectional title in eight years, the Cougars led the title game 1-0 for three innings before a decisive four-run seventh halted their repeat bid.
While collecting seven hits against the Arabians, the Cougars left seven runner stranded, including six in scoring position.
“Everything was lined up to have a monster year last year, but the softball gods just didn’t want it to happen,” Stewart said. “That’s just the way it went. Anything that could have gone wrong did for us.”
The Cougars, who host the sectional this year, are ready to turn their luck around, beginning with their season opener April 8 at Warren Central.
“Where we ended up and getting to the sectional championship last year, even as depleted as we were, we were still one good swing away from maybe winning the sectional title again last year,” said Stewart, who owns a 214-113 record in 11 seasons.
“We just couldn’t get that one big hit. I don’t know if you can have a more motivating factor than that. There’s definitely a lot of motivation there for me and them.”
Coach: Jason Stewart
2016 Record: 17-10
2016 Results: The Class 4A Cougars finished third in the the Hoosier Heritage Conference standings with a 2-5 record and reached the Pendleton Heights Sectional championship game. Greenfield-Central lost to the host Arabians in the finals 5-1.
Key Losses: Darcie Huber (Ball State), Madeline Gibson, Erika Knapp, Deena Miller.
Key Returnees: Morganne Denny (12), Michaela Ballman (12), Maria Kihega (11), Sara Morris (12), Codey Miller (12), Makayla Durick (12), Sydney Williams (11).