Back to Work: After a year hiatus, New Pal softball is eager for Class 4A challenge ahead

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NEW PALESTINE — The last time Alaina Miller suited up for the New Palestine Dragons softball team, she was a freshman.

Primarily a courtesy runner for the 2019 Class 3A state champion Dragons, Miller recorded one official at-bat with a hit, two RBI and four runs scored in 12 games played two years ago during New Palestine’s third straight title run.

Vivian Long had 20 plate appearances for the Dragons in 2019 as a sophomore. Lexi Campbell, also a sophomore in 2019, had a few more at-bats with 53 to go with a home run and 10 RBI.

Solid numbers for any young, up-and-coming players climbing the ladder through Dragons’ head coach Ed Marcum’s perennial program, but without a 2020 high school softball season due to the COVID-19 pandemic, no one really knows what to expect this spring.

Can the Dragons make another run at a state title? Will the program claim its first 4A championship or become the state’s first four-peat team in history?

Anything is possible.

In actuality, the only thing certain is the price tag the Dragons had to pay in royalties per 2019 state championship ring to engrave Pat Riley’s trademarked term on them.

From there, it’s essentially a new era for the Dragons, who face not only a new classification — moved up to 4A after winning their sixth state title overall in 2019 — but also the task of maintaining a tradition that was initiated with a 3A championship in 2003-04.

“With missing out on not being able to play last year, with a lot of these girls there is still going to be some adjustment, but we’re going to be alright,” Marcum said. “We just need to learn and stick with it.”

Some things, indeed, don’t change, for Marcum’s Dragons, who are one state title away from tying Center Grove (seven overall) for most all time with seven state finals appearances to New Palestine’s credit since 2002-03.

No longer around are 2020 graduates Michaela Jones, Raegan Hiatt, Kaylea Bullock and Sydney Anderson. The team’s five primary senior threats from 2019 are obviously gone as well.

But, the talent pool remains deep — and so does the team’s winning culture.

“You’ve got girls that were role players as sophomores on that (2019) team, and so now you’re expecting them to be leaders and the main players,” Marcum said. “It’s a little bit of a learning curve for them, but they’re going to be fine.”

Miller proved Marcum’s point to christen the Dragons new softball stadium during the season opener on Monday against visiting Eastern Hancock. The Dragons won 4-3 with the junior finishing 3-for-3, with a run scored and an RBI despite having an injured finger on her throwing hand.

As the Dragons’ starting second baseman, Miller and the team’s, now five seniors and five juniors, are eager to pick up the torch regardless of last year’s unexpected hiatus.

“(The players from before) were a huge part of the team, but it lets all of the younger kids step up and have an opportunity now,” Miller said. “We have to work hard, know our roles and use this opportunity. We definitely miss them, but this gives a lot more people an opportunity to show what they got.”

One returnee that needs little introduction is senior, Louisville commit Sam Booe, the Dragons’ ace as a sophomore. Booe finished the 2019 season with an 18-0 record, 116 strikeouts and a 1.51 ERA.

As a hitter, Booe carried a .389 batting average with 13 RBI, four doubles and two home runs. Booe, along with senior left fielder Kinsey Mitchell, were recently named to the Premier Girls Fastpitch All-American Game watch list.

Mitchell hit .348 in 2019 as a sophomore with 31 runs scored, seven RBI, three doubles and a team-best nine stolen bases.

“I think, we’re just going to keep at it and keep working,” Marcum said. “Show them what New Palestine softball is all about. Like I always tell them. We’re going to get everybody’s best.”

Kendal Calvert, an IUPUI commit, where her older sister, Jaylin, competes, is a key defender in center field for the Dragons as a senior this season. As a hitter, she had 11 RBI, five doubles, a home run and 20 runs scored in 2019.

Campbell (.358, 10 RBI), a senior, is at third base, in addition to fellow classmate, Long (.278), who is starting at first base.

Juniors Katie Kottlowski (pitcher), Delaney Barton (designated player) and Alexa Holman (relief pitcher) have taken the necessary steps in addition to freshmen Allie Blum (shortstop), Sydney Oliver and Reese Rosenbaum.

Sophomore Aglaia Rudd (catcher) hit fifth in the order against Eastern Hancock while junior Grace Paquette provides further depth as a reserve.

“Everyone is super excited. Everyone is trying to get pumped for this season. We’re moving up a class, so we’re facing a lot tougher teams, tougher competition, bigger schools, which everyone is really excited about,” Miller said. “We just need to keep the energy up so we can hopefully make it to state again.”

The 4A fifth-ranked Dragons opened the 2021 season at 2-0 with a 20-2 run-rule win over 3A Lebanon in five innings on Tuesday. New Palestine resumes play on Wednesday, April 7, after spring break, at home against 4A Avon.