Olentangy Orange High School softball coach Bruce Leary doesn't have an issue with anyone who assumed his team would need to rebuild this season.
After all, the Pioneers lost three four-year starters to graduation, including pitcher Mason Robinson, who won 18 games and batted .448 last season. She was first-team all-state as a junior and finished with 60 career victories.
Leary simply disagrees with the notion that his squad isn't in position to equal or better what it accomplished last season, when it went 19-8 overall.
The Pioneers open Friday, April 4, with two games at Versailles (Ky.) Woodford County.
"Everyone knows that we lost Mason, so a lot of people expect us to be down this year, but I think we'll have a surprising team," said Leary, who is in his sixth season. "We have nine other girls back and I think we're going to be better offensively and defensively than we were last year. I think our pitching is going to be better than people are expecting, too."
The Pioneers are counting on junior Jenn Kurelic to be their No. 1 pitcher after she started at first base the previous two seasons. She batted .413 with seven doubles, three triples, a home run, 18 RBI and 31 runs a year ago.
Freshman Alex Nagy is her backup.
"Jenn worked really hard to improve her pitching and I have a lot of confidence in her," Leary said. "She's a tremendous all-around player who gives us a chance to win."
Four other starters have returned in senior Rachel Ramsey (2B), juniors Kyle Davidson (C) and Emily Grabau (SS) and sophomore Maicy Kirk (CF).
Davidson batted .506 with 22 RBI and 29 runs last year and was first-team all-OCC-Capital Division. The Dayton recruit stole 16 bases in 17 attempts and threw out 16 baserunners.
Grabau batted .395 and Kirk batted .246.
Also looking to contribute are seniors Julia Pinciotti (OF/C), Toni Santonastasso (1B) and Alex Wieging (OF), junior Taylor Pirko (3B), sophomores Alayna Kaschak (1B) and Nina Sensibaugh (OF) and freshman Marlo Robinson (OF).
"We have a lot of experience up the middle, so we should be fine defensively," Leary said. "Kyle's one of the best catchers in the area. She's really stroking the ball and she's a tremendous defensive catcher. She's probably our best baserunner, too."
Leary believes his team can compete for the OCC-Capital title after it tied Delaware for second (11-3) behind Olentangy (13-1) last season.
"There's a lot of good pitching in our league, but I like the way we're swinging our bats, so I feel like we can be in the mix, too," he said.
Braves hungry for more this season
Second-year Olentangy coach Alan Tharp is looking for his team to top what it accomplished last season, when it went 19-9 and won the OCC-Capital but lost to Pickerington Central 2-1 in the second round of the Division I district tournament.
"We are coming off a successful 2013 season," said Tharp, who was OCC-Capital Coach of the Year. "We were the OCC-Capital outright champions, and after a 2-5 start, we ended the season 19-9 overall.
"However, we lost in the second round of district, (which) was a disappointing end to a successful season. We look to extend our stay in the postseason and try to retain the OCC-Capital title."
The Braves opened March 31 in the Myrtle Beach (S.C.) Spring Break Classic.
Seven starters are back in seniors Brooke Ring (2B) and Hailey Wilson (P), juniors Missy Lee (SS), Jessica Lowery (CF), Emily Hoffman (C) and Sierra Stults (3B) and sophomore Maddie Edwards (OF).
Last year, Wilson batted .402 with a home run, 11 doubles, two triples, 25 RBI and 29 runs. She also went 19-8 with a 3.59 ERA and 94 strikeouts in 175 1/3 innings, and was first-team all-league.
Lee batted .407 with three triples, six doubles, 26 RBI and 28 runs, and was second-team all-league. Lowery batted .353 with 18 runs and was honorable mention all-league.
Hoffman batted .341 with 16 RBI and 12 runs, Ring batted .325 with three home runs, nine doubles, 26 RBI and 14 runs, Stults batted .302 with 10 doubles, 10 RBI and 20 runs and Edwards batted .286.
Rounding out the roster are senior utility players Emily Clark, Sam Rinehart and Morgan Thornberry, junior Lindsay Abramowitz (1B), sophomores Kendra Madaris (P) and Ashley Post (1B/designated player) and freshman Ryan Velazquez (P).
"We want to continue to improve our defensive game," Tharp said. "Last season, we finished with a .968 fielding percentage, which was a huge improvement from the prior season (.875)."
Patriots loaded with experience
With eight returning starters, fourth-year Liberty coach Bob Lee expects his team to put together another strong season after going 19-6 overall last year.
Liberty went 11-3 in the OCC-Central to tie Marysville for the league title, but the Patriots fell to Pickerington Central 5-2 in a Division I district semifinal.
"Our team is pretty similar to the one we had last year, so I think we can do well again," Lee said. "The OCC-Central looks pretty balanced, so I'd say the title is up for grabs again. We'll see some real good pitching, so we'll need to hit well because we have the speed to manufacture runs when we get on."
The Patriots opened March 31 at Bradenton (Fla.) Lakewood Ranch.
The returning starters are senior Madison Kadlic (SS), juniors Kristen Adkins (P) and Bailey Ankrim (C) and sophomores Tiffany Hart (3B), Keri Kelly (RF/LF), Rylee Kashmiry (LF/RF), Kaylin Lee (1B) and Randi Noday (2B).
Adkins shared OCC-Central Player of the Year honors with Marysville's Kyleah Brey. Kadlic was first-team all-league, and Ankrim and Noday were second-team all-league.
Rounding out the roster are seniors Erin Hamilton (C/3B/1B) and Allison Linn (OF), junior Meredith Bates (OF/2B) and sophomores Sarah Eschleman (P), Kylie Reed (3B/1B), Ashley Stevenson (OF/C) and Ashley Wilhelm (P/OF).
"Our infield is set and we're lucky to have players who can play multiple positions well," Lee said. "We should be strong up the middle with Madison at shortstop. Our outfield is a question mark at the moment, but I'm confident we'll improve there."