Experience edge: Senior-driven Cougars set sights on big year

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GREENFIELD — It was supposed to be easy.

Almost as soon as last season ended, Greenfield-Central softball coach Jason Stewart was on the bus, thinking ahead to his 2019 team and lineup.

He thought he had it all figured out, way in advance. Everything seemed perfect.

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“As crazy as it sounds, I usually start thinking about the upcoming season about halfway home from our last game of the year before on the bus,” Stewart said. “Who are we going to plug here, who are we going to plug there? It was going to be real easy this year, because we looked back at it and counting our designated player who hit that game, we had nine out of 10 kids coming back. Real simple — plug the one into the hole of the senior that played in the sectional game, and we’re off.”

If only it were that easy.

A pair of injuries during basketball season — to expected softball starters Caroline Gibson and Madge Weidner — quickly derailed Stewart’s plan.

Gibson, a sophomore, caught and played third base last year. Weidner, a senior, was the team’s No. 1 pitcher. They were slotted in to start at third and on the mound this year, and hit fourth and fifth in the Cougars’ lineup.

“Everywhere else we felt comfortable coming into this season,” Stewart said. “They are two big players and two big spots to fill. It’s been kind of a challenge puzzling it together and figuring out what we’re going to do.”

The Greenfield-Central staff went into a bit of a scramble mode, trying to piece things together until the team is back to full strength, which Stewart hopes to see happen by early to mid-April. Gibson and Weidner are both hitting and throwing, just waiting to be cleared to run.

With almost the entire 2018 squad returning, though, there have been plenty of experienced pieces to help the team prepare for the new season.

Lexi Rankin, a senior, is likely to start in the No. 1 pitching role. She went 4-2 last year on the mound with a 4.51 ERA. She had 42 strikeouts in 54.1 innings.

“Lexi got the most innings last year. She has all the tools,” Stewart said. “She needed to fine-tune a few things, work on her conditioning to where last year, she threw a lot of pitches in games which caused her to wear down fourth or fifth inning. She’s dialed in her control a little bit, and I’m hoping that when the sixth, seventh inning comes along, she’s still got some gas in the tank.”

Zoe Kessler, another senior, will likely jump into one of the spots vacated by injury. Another senior, Macy Fultz, will see more time on the mound to start the year.

All told, the Cougars boast 10 seniors in the lineup, giving them a big experience advantage and helping ease the team through the injury losses.

“It has been a little tough. We’ve kind of expected a little more out of people, now, which I like a lot,” junior catcher Sam Kihega said of the injuries to Weidner and Gibson. “Losing them, yeah it hurts us a lot, but I think it really makes people want to try harder, because they know those spots are open. It makes it a lot more competitive and us a lot stronger as a team, I think.”

“I’m very confident in this group,” she added. “With so many leaders on this team and so much experience, it’s very easy to just relax, play our game and be confident in ourselves. It’s really coming along.”

Stewart expects to see big things out of Kihega, Greenfield-Central’s lone returning all-county player from 2018.

In just 21 games last year, Kihega hit .516 and added four home runs and 29 RBIs.

“Sam’s going to have a big year for us,” Stewart said. “Sam was on pace to be an all-state player last year, and unfortunately she got hurt and missed a quarter of the season. She’s absolutely been killing the ball. She’s fantastic behind the plate. She’s going to help lead this team.”

The strength of the Cougars, according to their coach, is up the middle. With Kihega catching, senior Keryna Barrett at shortstop, senior Emily Francis at second base, and Lexi and Jessie Rankin each taking turns at center field, Stewart thinks he has a very strong defensive team.

He also likes the speed of his outfield — between the Rankin sisters and Kensie Bradley, Stewart thinks he has one of the fastest groups in the state.

His goals for the team are the same as they always have been in his 14 years as head coach. Stewart hopes to see the team finish high in the conference, compete for a sectional title and win 20 games.

For the underclassmen on the team, the big goal is a bit different. They want to send their big senior class out as winners.

“We just want to make sure that they have the best season possible,” Kihega said. “We want to make sure that we as underclassmen behind them give them the best season and try hard for them. I think that’s our goal, just to give them the best season possible and obviously win sectional.”

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Greenfield-Central Cougars

Coach: Jason Stewart (14th year)

Last season: 17-10, 1-6 HHC; L 4-0 to Pendleton Heights in sectional opener

Key returnees: P/CF Lexi Rankin (.430, 4 HR, 32 RBI, 4.51 ERA, 42 K), OF Jessie Rankin (.500, 4 RBI), RF Kensie Bradley (.389, 9 RBI), 2B Emily Francis (.358, 14 RBI), P Madge Weidner (6-4 record, 3.52 ERA, 19 K), SS Keryna Barrett (.318, 2 RBI), seniors; C Sam Kihega (.516, 4 HR, 29 RBI), junior; 3B Caroline Gibson (.300, 3 HR, 21 RBI), sophomore

Top newcomers: 2B/OF Meganne Weinenger, SS/OF Morganne Hornaday, 3B Ella Redman, freshmen

Outlook: The Cougars look poised to bounce back from a tough conference slate in 2018. Expect to see a sizable improvement in HHC play from the senior-driven Cougars. Getting healthy will be the big key to how big of a turnaround the team experiences, as the team has to hold down the fort until top pitcher Madge Weidner and third baseman Caroline Gibson return. Catcher Sam Kihega, who had a huge partial year in 2018 to earn all-county honors, is poised for an even bigger season if she stays healthy. Greenfield-Central should push the 20-win mark, and is likely to fare much better come tournament time this spring.

Notable: With 10 seniors on the roster, the Cougars are one of the most experienced teams in the area. They return about 120 innings pitched and about 75 percent of their offensive production, from hits to runs to RBIs.

Schedule

Date;Opponent;Time

March 28;Richmond;5:30 p.m.

March 30;Southport;11 a.m.

April 2;at Centerville;5:30 p.m.

April 3;at Northeastern;5:30 p.m.

April 6;Wapahani;12 p.m.

April 8;at Noblesville;6 p.m.

April 10;at Westfield;6 p.m.

April 12;at Fishers;5:30 p.m.

April 13;at Beech Grove;10 a.m.

April 15;Delta;5:30 p.m.

April 17;at New Castle;5:30 p.m.

April 18; at Rushville;7 p.m.

April 23;Shelbyville;7:30 p.m.

April 24;Yorktown;5:30 p.m.

April 26;at Mt. Vernon;5:30 p.m.

May 1;at Shenandoah;7 p.m.

May 2;at New Palestine;5:30 p.m.

May 6;at Chatard;5:30 p.m.

May 7;Pendleton Heights;5:30 p.m.

May 9;at Lawrence Central;5:30 p.m.

May 11;Cougar Classic;9 a.m.

May 13;Roncalli;5:30 p.m.

May 16;Carmel;5:30 p.m.

May 17;at Lawrence North;6 p.m.

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