Fourth-year Olentangy Orange High School softball coach Bruce Leary has a good reason to feel optimistic about this season.

Fourth-year Olentangy Orange High School softball coach Bruce Leary has a good reason to feel optimistic about this season.

The Pioneers have nine returning letterwinners from last year's team that finished 12-11 overall after losing to Canal Winchester 10-4 in its Division II district tournament opener.

Orange also has talented players in key positions. Eastern Michigan recruit Abby Davidson is starting at shortstop for the fourth consecutive season and junior pitcher Mason Robinson has made a verbal commitment to Butler.

The Pioneers also have added three freshmen who are skilled enough to compete for starting roles in Kyle Davidson (C), Emily Grabau (2B) and Jenn Kurelic (P/1B/OF).

"With our combination of experienced players and the new ones we've picked up, I think we're going to have a much better team this year," said Leary, whose squad opened March 24 with a 7-5 loss to Upper St. Clair (Pa.) and an 8-4 win over host Louisville (Ky.) duPont Manual. "I think we can make a run at the (OCC-Capital Division) title this season."

Nine players who started multiple games last year have returned in seniors Davidson, Alexis Evanko (1B) and Jenny Sims (LF), juniors Kaitlyn Brown (RF), Kelly Byrum (3B), Jamie Pence (CF), Robinson and Valery Rojas (RF) and sophomore Rachel Ramsey (INF).

Byrum and Pence are third-year starters at their positions.

Junior Miranda Tomlinson will add to Orange's depth as a utility player.

"We're a much more experienced bunch and all of the kids are improving," said Leary, whose team beat Ready 6-0 on March 26 to improve to 2-1. "Our freshmen are outstanding players, too."

En route to its first winning season, Orange finished third in the OCC-Capital a year ago at 8-6, behind Delaware (14-0) and Hilliard Bradley (11-3) and ahead of Big Walnut (7-7), Mount Vernon (7-7), New Albany (5-9), Watkins Memorial (3-11) and Franklin Heights (1-13).

"Delaware went undefeated in our league and has its pitching back," Leary said. "New Albany should be good and you never can count out Mount Vernon. I think we have the ability to win our league, but we need to come together as a team and make plays when it counts."

The Pioneers will compete in the Division I postseason.

"It's going to be a lot tougher at the district level, so we'll need to elevate our game when it's tournament time," Leary said.

Six returnees lead Patriots

Liberty opened March 26 with an 11-6 loss to Fairbanks and began OCC-Cardinal play March 28 at Marysville.

The Patriots finished 8-13 overall last year after opening the Division I district tournament with a 2-1 win over Dublin Coffman before losing to Grove City 9-1.

Six starters are back in seniors Sarah Drosos (2B), Aoife Duffy (C/1B) and Ashley Kelley (LF) and sophomores Katie Flanagan (P), Madison Kadlic (SS) and Hannah Worth (P).

Freshman Kristen Adkins is expected to become Liberty's top pitcher, while freshman Bailey Ankrim will split starts at catcher and third base.

Senior Andrea Cardinali will start in center field, junior Kayla Pfaff will start some games at first base and juniors Brooke Hokes and Rosalyn Ransaw are vying to start in right field.

Rounding out the roster and competing for roles are senior Katie Comyns, junior Stephanie Capretta and freshman Kristen Levering.

"We have six returning players and two freshmen (Adkins and Ankrim) who are great additions, so I feel like we're a better team than we were last year," second-year coach Bob Lee said. "We're not as fast as we were last year, but we have a little more power hitting the ball and our two returning pitchers are a year older, so our pitching is going to be better. We gave up only three runs in four scrimmages, so I feel our pitching is already much improved."

The Patriots went 6-8 to finish sixth in the OCC-Cardinal a year ago behind co-champions Marysville (11-3) and Westerville North (11-3), Olentangy (9-5), Westerville Central (9-5) and Westerville South (6-8) and ahead of Dublin Scioto (2-12) and Dublin Jerome (1-13).

"Westerville North has everyone back, so they're the team to beat in the OCC," Lee said. "Marysville is traditionally good, so we've got to watch for them, too. Our players' goal is to win the league and I believe we can do it based on how much we've improved."

Breuer injury hurts Braves

Olentangy opens Thursday, March 29, at Delaware and begins OCC-Cardinal play Monday, April 2, at Scioto.

Last year, Olentangy finished 20-8 overall. Seeded sixth for the Division II district tournament, the Braves opened with a 1-0 win over Granville, upset fifth-seeded Hartley 8-7 in a semifinal and lost to second-seeded Lakewood 11-1 in five innings in a final.

The Braves suffered a major setback March 27 when senior pitcher/first baseman Haleigh Breuer had season-ending surgery on her right ankle to repair ligament damage.

Last season, the Malone University recruit went 18-7 with a 1.60 ERA and 140 strikeouts in 170 innings to be named first-team all-league and honorable mention all-district.

Breuer also batted .295 with a .460 on-base percentage, 17 RBI and 19 runs.

"Haleigh won games for us with her pitching, hitting, baserunning and leadership," sixth-year coach Marty Mearhoff said. "With Haleigh in the circle, we would have been one of the top contenders to win our league. I think we can still be competitive in the OCC-Cardinal, but we'll need some things to fall our way for us to win it because all three Westervilles are strong and Liberty's going to be very good this year."

Five starters have returned in seniors Dani Bigham (RF), Biz Brehm (CF) and Amanda Wojta (SS), junior Megan Beidelman (C) and sophomore Hailey Wilson (CF/1B).

Last year, Beidelman batted .301 with 14 RBI and nine runs and was special mention all-league. Wilson was honorable mention all-league and Brehm batted .288.

Brehm and Wilson will split pitching duties, with seniors Courtney Price (LF) and Mandy Rodriguez (RF), sophomore Brooke Ring (1B) and freshman Melissa Lee (2B) moving into the starting lineup for the first time.

Completing the lineup are juniors Megan Hupp (C/OF) and Lindsey Michel (utility player).

"Our infield and outfield are solid across the board, and our defense looks really good," Mearhoff said. "We should still be very competitive."