Olentangy Orange High School softball coach Bruce Leary acknowledges that his team may be hard-pressed to match last season's win total after he made its schedule more challenging.
Last season, the Pioneers finished 25-4 overall, had a program-record 23-game winning streak and went 12-2 in the OCC-Capital Division to tie Delaware for their first league championship.
Seeded second in the Division I district tournament, Orange had a first-round bye and defeated Dublin Jerome 5-0 in the second round and 10th-seeded Liberty 1-0 in a semifinal before losing to top-seeded Central Crossing 4-1 in a final at Pickerington Central.
"We made our schedule tougher, so it's going to be hard to match that winning streak and record that we had last year," said Leary, who is in his fifth season leading the program. "I strengthened our schedule because I want us to be challenged a little bit more to get us ready for the big games come tournament time.
"Our non-league win-loss record has never mattered to me. When I was coaching Bloom-Carroll, we won the (Division III) state title in 2007 with eight losses. Our goals are to win our league and district championships, and playing a tougher schedule should help prepare us."
Orange, which defeated Westerville Central 5-0 on April 1 after its March 30 opener against Jonathan Alder was canceled, features eight returning starters in seniors Kaitlyn Brown (LF), Kelly Byrum (3B), Jamie Pence (CF), Mason Robinson (P) and Valery Rojas (RF), junior Rachel Ramsey (2B) and sophomores Kyle Davidson (C) and Jenn Kurelic (1B).
Last year, Robinson batted .348 and went 23-3 in the circle with an 0.83 ERA and 179 strikeouts in 167 2/3 innings and was named first-team all-league, all-district and all-state.
Davidson batted .424 with 32 RBI and 21 runs and was first-team all-league and all-district. Pence hit .315 with nine RBI and 12 runs and was second-team all-league, and Kurelic batted .313 with 16 RBI and 20 runs.
Sophomore Emily Grabau is expected to be the starting shortstop.
Also looking to contribute are senior Miranda Tomlinson (INF), junior Julia Pinciotti (OF/C), sophomore Taylor Pirko (utility) and freshmen Alayna Kaschak (utility) and Maicy Kirk (utility).
"We have 10 returning letterwinners, so I'm encouraged about the coming season," Leary said.
Mount Vernon finished third in the OCC-Capital last year at 9-5, followed by Big Walnut (7-7), Hilliard Bradley (7-7), New Albany (7-7), Franklin Heights (2-12) and Watkins Memorial (0-14). As part of OCC realignment last summer, Bradley moved to the OCC-Cardinal and Olentangy joined the OCC-Capital.
Orange opens league play Monday, April 8, at home against New Albany.
"Delaware and us would be co-favorites to win the OCC again, I guess, but New Albany and Mount Vernon have good teams, too," Leary said. "Our second big goal is to win our first district title. We're somewhat inspired by our state final four girls basketball team, which was similar to us in that it wasn't full of star players. We're hoping to follow in that team's footsteps by making a long tournament run."
Offense is concern for Patriots coach
Liberty begins its first season in the OCC-Central after winning the OCC-Cardinal title a year ago.
Last season, the Patriots finished 19-6 overall and went 12-2 in the OCC-Cardinal to finish ahead of Westerville North (10-3), Marysville (9-5), Westerville South (8-5), Westerville Central (6-7), Dublin Jerome (5-8), Olentangy (3-10) and Dublin Scioto (1-13). Some teams did not complete all of their league games.
Liberty, which opened with a 2-1 win over North Union on March 30, will be competing against Central Crossing, Dublin Coffman, Hilliard Davidson, Marysville, Thomas Worthington, Upper Arlington and Westland in the OCC-Central. Its league opener is Monday, April 8, at Central Crossing.
The Patriots return five starters in seniors Kayla Pfaff (1B) and Rosalyn Ransaw (CF), junior Madison Kadlic (SS) and sophomores Kristen Adkins (P) and Bailey Ankrim (C/3B).
Last year, Adkins was 13-4 with a 1.21 ERA and 131 strikeouts and 35 walks in 115 1/3 innings and batted .356 with five home runs and 22 RBI. She was first-team all-league and all-district.
Kadlic hit .329 with 20 RBI and eight doubles and was second-team all-league, and Pfaff batted .329 with two home runs and 19 RBI and was honorable mention all-league.
Two freshmen are expected to be starters in Randi Noday (2B) and Tiffany Hart (3B).
Rounding out the roster are senior Brooke Hokes (OF), junior Allison Linn (OF/SS), sophomores Meredith Bates (OF/2B) and Keri Kelly (OF) and freshmen Sarah Eschleman (P), Rylee Kashmiry (OF/2B), Kaylin Lee (1B/3B), Ashley Stevenson (OF/C) and Ashley Wilhelm (P/OF).
"We lost a lot of our firepower, so we may need to manufacture runs as opposed to knocking them in," third-year coach Bob Lee said.
"If (Adkins) stays healthy, she'll be one of the best pitchers in the area and keep us in games."
Seeded 10th in the Division I district tournament a year ago, Liberty beat Reynoldsburg 14-4 in five innings in the first round and Watterson 7-0 in the second round before losing to Orange 1-0 in a semifinal.
Braves counting on their offense
Olentangy is looking to bounce back from last season, when it finished 8-17 overall and placed seventh in the OCC-Cardinal at 3-10.
The Braves opened March 30 by splitting two games in the Buckner (Ky.) Oldham County Spring Break Classic. They beat Hebron (Ky.) Conner 13-4 and lost to Oldham County 6-0.
Olentangy has moved to the OCC-Capital and is under the direction of first-year coach Alan Tharp.
"We have a good group of kids who all get along well together," Tharp said. "Our strength should be our offense because we have a bit of power."
Olentangy, which begins league play Monday, April 8, at Big Walnut, returns six starters in seniors Megan Beidelman (1B), Megan Hupp (C) and Lindsey Michel (LF/RF), juniors Hailey Wilson (2B/P) and Brooke Ring (2B/P) and sophomore Melissa Lee (SS).
Last year, Wilson batted .440 with a home run, a triple, five doubles, 13 RBI and 20 runs and went 5-7 in the circle with a 4.99 ERA and 59 strikeouts in 87 innings. She was second-team all-league.
Also expected to start are sophomore Jessica Lowery (CF) and Sierra Stults (3B). Lowery is a transfer from Westerville Central.
Rounding out the team are sophomores Emily Hoffman (C/OF) and Lindsay Abramowitz (C) and freshmen Sierra Bell (C/OF), Madeline Edwards (OF), Kendra Madaris (P/OF) and Ashley Post (OF/1B).
Olentangy defeated Franklin Heights 6-4 in the first round of the Division I district tournament last year before losing to fourth-seeded Grove City 12-2 in five innings in the second round.
The Braves' team ERA was 4.39 and their fielding percentage was .875.
"We need to improve our pitching and defense and we're working hard on those things in practice," Tharp said. "We're looking for a fresh start in the OCC-Capital. Orange is probably the favorite to win our league because they have strong pitching, but I think we'll do well because we have a lot of experienced players."