Steve Smith is not one to get overly excited, but the third-year coach of the Johnstown-Monroe High School softball team can't wait for the season to begin.
The Johnnies have five starters back from a team that finished last season 13-14 overall and third (8-6) in the MBC behind Northridge (13-1) and Loudonville (9-5). They also have a standout move-in and a talented freshman class, making Smith optimistic.
"I'm not one to get excited, but I can't wait to see how we come out and play," Smith said. "All of the kids are good athletes, they have a great attitude and they are definitely gifted girls all the way through. Plus, we have been hitting the ball for a change in the preseason and putting it in play. We only had three strikeouts in our three scrimmages, which is great."
The Johnnies, who have moved to the LCL, open with a league game Monday, March 31, at Northridge.
Returning starters are senior second baseman Ashley Bush, senior shortstop Natalie Carpenter, senior outfield Hallie Grinstead, sophomore pitcher Maddi Lusk and sophomore catcher Erin McConnell.
Carpenter (.382 average, .584 on-base percentage, 12 doubles, 3 triples, 10 RBI) was second-team all-league last year and Lusk (.369, .565 OBP, 3 homers, 17 RBI) was honorable mention all-league. In the circle, Lusk was 9-11 with a 3.09 ERA and 126 strikeouts in 132 innings.
Also back from last season are senior outfielder Sierra Reynard and junior outfielder Courtney Fuller.
Junior Anna Torres is a left-handed pitcher who came to Johnstown from Virginia.
Rounding out the roster are freshmen Jordan Dingess (3B), Brianna Potter (OF), Abby Schaffer (INF/OF), Mikala Smith (P/1B) and Sydney Stefanick (P/INF/OF).
"We haven't been this deep in pitching in a few years," Smith said. "We have Maddi, Anna and Sydney, who are all really good.
"One thing I am concerned about is our youth. We are going to have a lot of young kids playing a lot of innings, and even though they seem to have a very good mindset and a good head for the game, you just never know until the season starts."
'New' coach excited about baseball team
The baseball team is led by first-year coach Justin Richards, who is in his second stint with the program after leading the Johnnies in 2011.
That season, the Johnnies finished 15-9, losing to Heath 7-2 in a Division III district final. It was the program's first district-final appearance since 2006. Johnstown also finished third (9-5) in the MBC that season, behind Fredericktown (12-1) and Utica (10-4).
Richards replaced interim coach Todd Sammons, who went 1-1 after second-year coach Anthony Cleveland resigned during the final week of the 2013 regular season. The Johnnies finished 9-17 overall and tied Loudonville for fourth (6-8) in the MBC behind co-champions Fredericktown and Northridge (both 12-2).
"I took my time off, figured out where I need to be and I'm glad to be back," said Rich-ards, whose team opens Monday, March 31, with an LCL game at Northridge.
"I'm happy to be back, and we have a great group that is ready to go. Hopefully, we can have a season like we did the first time around. I think we're headed in the right direction."
Johnstown has three starters back in seniors Clayton Bullard (C), Josh Kirkpatrick (1B/P) and Zach LaRue (P/2B).
LaRue (3-3, 32 strikeouts, 10 walks, 3.00 ERA, 42 innings) was honorable mention all-league last season. Bullard batted .300 with 16 RBI, and Kirkpatrick was 3-5 with a 4.51 ERA, 26 strikeouts and 24 walks in 45 innings.
The Johnnies had five players transfer to Northridge, including first-team all-league second baseman Jakob Cramer (.389 batting average, 15 runs, 10 RBI). The others were senior Nic Walker (P/OF) and juniors Trent Baughman (3B/P), Andrew Hollis (P/INF) and Anthony Hollis (P/INF). Because of OHSAA rules, they cannot play in the first 13 games.
Also back from last season are seniors Sam Branstool (utility/P), Harrison Johnson (utility) and David Schaller (OF/P) and juniors Brendan Barasch (OF) and Cody Rayburn (3B/P).
"We spent the first few weeks of practice working on fundamentals and they seem to be catching on," Richards said. "After two scrimmages, we had only given up two runs and committed one error, which is a pretty good start.
"We're still not there with the bats, but pitching and defense wins championships. We need to hit the ball and have some good at-bats."
Seniors new to varsity are Blake Burton (OF), Adam Fahner (2B), Jimmy Knisley (OF/P), Michael Newlon (OF/P) and Ryan Torres (OF), a move-in from Virginia.
Rounding out the roster are juniors Ethan Clift (SS), Trent Coe (OF) and Zack Fleming (C/OF) and sophomore Dalton Hastings (INF).