HANCOCK COUNTY — Here’s what to watch for as Eastern Hancock, Greenfield-Central, Mt. Vernon and New Palestine step to the plate for the 2018 prep softball season.

The defenders

New Palestine is aiming for its second straight — and fifth overall — Class 3A state championship; Greenfield-Central is a returning 4A regional champ; and Eastern Hancock is a two-time defending 2A sectional winner.

All-Americans

Story continues below gallery

Click here to purchase photos from this gallery

Ohio State commit and New Palestine senior Ashley Prange earned a wealth of accolades following her breakout 2017 campaign (.552 batting average), including Daily Reporter Hancock County Player of the Year and Third Team All-American honors by the National Fastpitch Coaches Association.

The shortstop, who set Indiana state single-season records with 21 home runs and 67 runs batted in, got an assist from third baseman Emily O’Connor (.558, 14 home runs), a Second Team NFCA All-American last year as a sophomore.

“All of our players are so humble, and I think Ashley knew she wouldn’t have had the year she had if Emily wasn’t hitting behind her, because everybody would have just walked her,” New Palestine head coach Ed Marcum said of the Dragons’ standouts, who hit Nos. 2 and 3 in the lineup. “They had such huge years, I’m not going to mess with it. That’s my plan again. That way, the team we’re playing, they get to see both of them in the first inning.”

Prange’s 2018 honors already have begun, with USA Today naming the slugger to its ALL-USA Preseason Team, a first for the New Palestine softball program, Marcum said.

New conference, new coach

Eastern Hancock welcomes Terry Stephens into the fold as head coach. A veteran leader of travel and middle-school softball programs, Stephens will shepherd the Royals into their inaugural Mid-Eastern Conference slate.

“When you start figuring out your goals for the year, that’s the first one on the list: hopefully winning the conference,” said Stephens of the MEC, which includes Shenandoah, Wapahani, Blue River, Monroe Central, Daleville, Wes-Del, Randolph Southern and Cowan.

Union (Modoc) is also a MEC member but doesn’t have a varsity softball program.

“That always gives you a little more incentive to play,” Stephens said of being in a conference.

The Royals (20-7) had no conference affiliation last year, following several seasons in the Mid-Hoosier Conference.

Stephens took over at Eastern Hancock for Pat Medler, who was hired as a teacher and head softball coach at Monroe Central last summer.

Mt. Vernon aims to bounce back

The Marauders went 10-14 last season under head coach Veronica Kirby, falling to eventual sectional champ Lawrence North 6-5 in the tourney semifinals.

Jadan Fithian (.342), Morgan Scruggs (.324), Cassidy Parker (.312) and Kaitlyn Nugent (.377) were among the offensive leaders a year ago as juniors, with Nugent sharing the team home-run lead at four with MaKenzie Gee, who graduated.

Nugent also was the team leader in wins, going 5-8 with a 4.32 ERA.

Well-armed

Greenfield-Central’s 2017 success was in large part due to Michaela Ballman (11-4, 3.29 ERA) and Makayla Durick (7-2, 3.26 ERA) dictating the action. Despite the hurlers’ graduation, the Cougars (25-7 last year) have faith in their 2018 pitching prospects.

An elbow injury and subsequent surgery cost Sydney Williams a chance at joining Ballman and Durick in the rotation a year ago.

“She would have been right there with our other two as far as throwing,” Greenfield-Central head coach Jason Stewart said of Williams, a senior. “While the other two did a good job last year, Sydney was right there, potential-wise. They probably all would have got the same amount of innings.”

Williams is now healthy and ready to take over in the circle. She’ll be joined by junior Lexi Rankin, who went 4-1 with a 4.69 ERA last season in relief of Ballman and Durick.

“You never want to say it was a blessing somebody got hurt, but with (Williams) not pitching, it allowed Lexi to get quite a few innings at the varsity level and some experience,” Stewart said. “While it hurt as a little bit last year, I think it will benefit us this year. It kind of moved the process ahead in that aspect.”

Deep Dragons

Thanks in part to an seven-deep junior class, New Palestine (31-2 last season) is set up nicely for this year and beyond.

Juniors Emma Tucher (.400), Tete Hart (.467) and Jaylin Calvert anchor what Marcum deems “the fastest outfield I’ve ever had.” Kendal Calvert, a freshman, will join the juniors in the outfield rotation.

Tatum Biddle (.387), another junior, will start at second base.

“We still have a lot of depth,” Marcum said. “We’re going to hit all the way through the lineup.”

In the circle, senior Mackenzie Jones (9-0, 1.71 ERA) is in the No. 1 spot following the graduation of Elisha Barker (22-2, 2.53). Kaylea Bullock, a sophomore and the Dragons’ primary junior varsity pitcher last season, will also get a chance to toe the rubber.

“Last year, Elisha and Mack had kind of the same pitching styles, but Mack and Kaylea are a little different,” Marcum, in his 15th season as head coach, noted. “So, I think it might work to our advantage, maybe even using them both in the same game.”

Catching Jones behind the plate will be her sister, sophomore Michaela Jones (.406, 35 runs scored).

Reiley Widmann is the third member of the Dragons’ senior class, joining Prange and Mackenzie Jones. She’ll handle first base duties, along with junior Macy Miller.

Sarah Greene (utility) rounds out the Dragons’ talented junior Class of 2019.

Sectional shakeups

Mt. Vernon has been moved into Class 4A Sectional 9 with Greenfield-Central, replacing New Castle, which dropped to 3A due to enrollment.

New Palestine also is in an entirely different sectional, departing its Indianapolis-area Class 3A tournament for a Sectional 27 field that includes Connersville, Indian Creek, Rushville and Beech Grove. Indianapolis Scecina moved up from 2A to take New Palestine’s spot in Sectional 26.

In Sectional 42, Eastern Hancock will be joined by rival Knightstown, formerly a Sectional 41 combatant. The Panthers replaced Broad Ripple in the Sectional 42 field.

The Sisters Kihega

Greenfield-Central’s offense took a serious hit with the graduation of slugger Morganne Denny (.495, 14 home runs), as well as Ballman (.449, eight home runs).

Incoming senior third baseman Maria Kihega ranked third on the team in home runs with five, while hitting .291.

“We hit her leadoff last year because we didn’t have anyone else to hit leadoff,” Stewart said. “It’s a different mentality and one I don’t think she was totally comfortable with. But she is going to hit down in the order this year, and I think she’s going to have big year for us offensively.”

Kihega’s sophomore sibling, Samantha, will start at catcher after hitting .430 in 100 at-bats a year ago, second most for the Cougars behind Maria’s 103 at-bats.

Other experienced returnees for Greenfield-Central include outfielder Kensie Bradley (.338), second baseman Emily Francis (.263) and shortstop defensive specialist Keryna Barrett, all juniors. Freshman Caroline Gibson (utility) will contribute to the varsity, with juniors Madge Weidner and Macy Francis also set to compete for positions.

“We’ve lost some kids, obviously, we can’t replace, but we’ve got a lot of kids back that got a lot of time last year, so I still think we can be pretty good,” said Stewart, entering his 13th season as head coach.

Three-peat ambitions

Eastern Hancock’s 2017 senior class of Peyton West, Kaysi Gilbert and Brooke Walden were cornerstones of the program’s back-to-back sectional run, but 2018 won’t be a rebuilding year, according to Stephens.

The coach has faith third baseman Micah Black (.455, 39 RBI) and first baseman Bree Ashby (.373) will fill the leadership gap.

“They play hard and they know the game, that’s for sure,” Stephens said of the senior duo. “Hopefully, some of these younger girls will take a look at them and see what to do.”

Other key returnees for the Royals include sophomores Paige Wickard (.349) and Hannah Lewis (.333), and juniors Megan Bever (.324) and Faithe Webster (.319). Bailey Stephens, a sophomore newcomer to the team, will start at shortstop.

Eastern Hancock also returns its entire pitching staff, including junior Elise Bittinger and sophomore Jessi Potts. Freshman Maddie Turner will contribute from the circle, as well.

“With the fact that we still have our pitching, … we’re wanting that sectional title. No doubt,” coach Stephens said.

Getting started

Mother Nature willing, Greenfield-Central will open the season Thursday at Richmond; New Palestine will host Southport on April 3; Mt. Vernon will welcome Hamilton Southeastern to Fortville on April 9; and Eastern Hancock will begin the season April 10 at Knightstown.