Pickerington High School Central softball coach Carrie Eneix doesn't expect her team to power past its opponents in pursuit of a second consecutive Division I district championship.
Even though the Tigers return seven starters from last year's 25-6 team, their second-year coach hopes speed and finesse are Central's keys to success.
"I think we'll have less power and more speed this year," said Eneix, whose team lost to Central Crossing 4-0 in a Division I regional semifinal a year ago.
"So far, we've been experimenting with different things and seeing who will fit best where. We have a lot of athleticism. We'll see who can produce."
Leading the returnees are first-team all-league and all-district junior first baseman Allie Luther, who hit a team-high eight home runs last year, as well as junior and three-year starting catcher Sadie Cunningham and senior center fielder Molly Riggs. Also back are junior Tori Markle (OF) and sophomores Hunter Brancifort (SS), Paige Johnson (OF), Alex Kidwell (3B), Madi Schott (2B), Jessica Stone (OF), Kylie Timbrook (C/1B/utility) and Hayleigh Van Ormer (OF).
Brancifort and Kidwell switched positions from a year ago.
Sophomore Hannah Gilkey is expected to be the Tigers' primary pitcher. She was a pitcher and designated player last season.
"We're not asking her to strike out 15 a game. That doesn't happen much anymore," Eneix said. "It's more about physical skills now and keeping hitters off balance. We just want Hannah to put the defense in good position and keep us in the game."
Central participated in the Buckner (Ky.) Oldham County Spring Break Classic on March 30 and went 2-1, defeating Shepherdsville (Ky.) North Bullitt 12-1 and Hebron (Ky.) Conner 6-2 before losing to Oldham County 10-4 in the final. The Tigers played their home opener April 2 against Teays Valley, and their OCC-Ohio Division opener is Monday, April 8, at home against Lancaster.
The Tigers lost six players from a year ago to graduation, led by first-team all-state shortstop Hannah Dittoe and second-team all-league and all-district pitcher Lindsey Inkrott. Dittoe had six home runs and a team-high 35 RBI.
Two other 2012 graduates, Lisa Cordova (2B/C/OF) and Kristina Hamler (RF), now are playing at Malone and Bluffton, respectively.
Central went 12-2 in the OCC-Ohio, finishing second behind Grove City (13-1) and ahead of Gahanna (9-5), Lancaster (7-7), Groveport (6-8), Pickerington North (6-8), Newark (3-11) and Reynoldsburg (0-14).
The Tigers earned the third seed in the district tournament and took a first-round bye before defeating Upper Arlington 5-0, Gahanna 8-5 in a district semifinal and Canal Winchester 4-0 in a district final.
"Those girls set the bar high last year, and now where we have expectations of a district title every year," Eneix said. "That's a good thing."
Panthers hope to overcome numbers
While this year has a much different feel from last year for second-year North coach Sarah Looker, the Panthers' program still isn't where she would like it to be.
Because of low numbers, North -- which went 13-11 overall last year and lost to top-seeded Central Crossing 11-1 in a Division I district semifinal -- will not field a j.v. team. But the Panthers still return senior starters Destiny Cornwell (3B) and Courtney Kelly (1B) as well as juniors Alicia Hack (2B/OF) and Hannah Lucas (CF/P).
"Scheduling everything is a little easier this year. It's going well and I know the girls so much better," said Looker, who became North's coach about two and a half months before last season began.
"We only have the varsity team this year, but the girls have worked hard every practice and done whatever we've asked."
Lucas was hitting .395 before missing the second half of last season because of a broken hand. Hack, who started as a shortstop and moved to center field after Lucas' injury, hit .346 and was second-team all-league and honorable mention all-district. Junior shortstop Hannah Murray, who also won six games as a pitcher, was special mention all-league.
The Panthers opened last year's district tournament with wins of 4-2 over Westland in the first round and 5-2 over Hilliard Davidson in the second.
North's primary battery likely will be two freshmen, pitcher Tessa Jensen and catcher Abbi Ebbrecht.
The rest of the roster consists of sophomores Jayna Binkiewicz (2B/SS), Taylor Lott (1B/3B) and Haley Thompson (1B/3B) and freshmen Michaela Dill (1B/3B), Christina Hope (2B/OF), Colleen Mazik (OF) and Audrey Wilson (2B/OF).
The Panthers open Friday, April 5, with games against Lebanon (Ky.) Marion County and Clarksville (Tenn.) West Creek in the two-day Play It Again Sports Tournament in Clarksville, Tenn. North's league opener is Monday, April 8, at home against Newark.
"We should get some good field time," Looker said, mentioning bad weather kept the Panthers inside until the last week of March.
"We're going to see a lot of competitive teams on our schedule and we'll have to be ready."