CHARLOTTESVILLE — There are a handful of positions softball coaches would rather not lose from one season to the next. The team’s starting pitcher and center fielder are among them.
Coming off its best season in school history, Eastern Hancock will have the challenge of replacing two key pieces to last season’s 20-4 regional championship team.
Darby Shaw (IPFW) and Jordan Pierson were lost to graduation, but seniors Kaysi Gilbert, Peyton West and Brooke Walden return to lead a talented group of veterans in what has the potential to be another long season for the Royals.
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Gilbert will take her usual spot at second base, while West will again anchor the defense from behind the plate. Walden will man the hot corner at third base. But with Shaw and Pierson gone, the rest of the lineup might look a little scrambled.
“The beginning will not be easy,” first-year head coach Pat Medler said, who was an assistant on the team last season. “It will look a little different and the biggest challenge will be our pitching. We will find out right away. It’s a good challenge, and I like that.
“I think there is enough talent to keep everything together.”
Expected to pitch in place of Shaw, who threw 147.1 innings last season, will be sophomore Elise Bittinger and freshmen Jessie Potts and Paige Wickard. Bittinger threw 14 innings last season and finished 2-0 with 14 strikeouts.
“I don’t know who is going to be the leading candidate (to start),” Medler said. “Everyone is going to get an opportunity, and we will see who rises to the top.
“If these young pitchers can keep us in the game, I think we will be OK.”
Offensively, West led the team with a .444 batting average a year ago and finished with 23 RBI, eight doubles and three home runs. Walden hit .387 with 20 RBI, six doubles and two home runs.
Gilbert tallied a .376 average as a junior and is one of the top players Medler has seen at her position in some time. She also totaled 21 RBI, 11 doubles, four triples and two home runs in 2016.
“Brooke’s actions will speak for her and Peyton is going to be a huge part for me early in the year with the new pitchers,” Medler said. “Kaysi was unbelievable last year and is going to be better this year.
“Those three are going to lead us.”
Now, as a senior, Gilbert said she wants to be more of a leader. She noted how well the team, freshman included, are bonding early in practices. And once the young players get past their early nerves this season, she expects the team to pick up right where it left off.
If so, good things should come.
“These girls are my best friends,” Gilbert said, who led the team with 28 runs scored last season. “I expect us to go far in the tournament again.”
Last season, Eastern Hancock finished 7-1 in the Mid-Hoosier Conference behind Hauser (9-0) before a deep postseason run. The Royals blew through the Triton Central Sectional and used a 7-6 win over Union County to claim their regional title.
During the Forest Park Semistate, Eastern Hancock handled No. 1 Henryville, 6-2, before falling to Evansville Mater Dei 3-2 in an eight-inning thriller. Mater Dei eventually won the Class 2A state title 1-0 over Boone Grove.
Expected to help contribute to another run this season will be seniors Caitlin Richmond and Reagan Hunt and junior Micah Black. Black was second on the team in average at .427 and finished with 27 RBI, 11 doubles and a team-high five home runs.
Sophomores Faithe Webster and Eriel Truitt also played significant roles last season and should have larger duties this year. Both finished the season with 14 hits or more and batting averages just south of .300.
But in order to make up for the lack of experience pitching wise, Medler believes defense will be more important than ever. With teams such as New Palestine, Hamilton Southeastern and Lawrence North added to the schedule, the Royals will certainly be tested.
“Everyone is so much better with their skills,” Medler said. “That’s what we focus on defense. I think last year that is why we were competitive. You have to make plays.”
Eastern Hancock will learn its new identity rather quickly. It will play four games in its first week of action and 18 games in April. The Royals open at home on April 4 against Cambridge City Lincoln.
Team: Eastern Hancock
Coach: Pat Medler
2016 Record: 20-4
2016 Results: The Class 2A Royals finished 7-1 in the Mid Hoosier Conference behind Hauser before winning the Triton Central Sectional. Eastern Hancock then won a regional championship and topped the No. 1 team (Henryville) in the first game of the semistate. The Royals fell 3-2 to eventual state champion Evansville Mater Dei in eight innings.
Key Losses: Darby Shaw (IPFW), Jordan Pierson.
Key Returnees: Kaysi Gilbert (12), Peyton West (12), Brooke Walden (12), Caitlin Richmond (12), Reagan Hunt (12), Micah Black (11), Bree Ashby (11), Eriel Truitt (10), Faithe Webster (10), Elise Bittinger (10).