Having lost just one starter from last season to graduation, the Groveport Madison High School softball team again has its sights set high this season.

"We want to contend for league championships and district championships every season," third-year coach Chris Downing said. "We want to make those expectations within the program."

The Cruisers won the OCC-Capital Division title last season and reached a Division I district final for the second season in a row before losing to Lancaster 5-4 to finish 23-6 overall. Groveport last won a district title in 1989.

"The team is more experienced than last year since we had so many younger girls," said Downing, whose team opened March 26 against Westland and will begin league play April 11 at Franklin Heights. "We are also stronger since we have emphasized weightlifting and I believe we are a little more athletic and deeper. We've got girls on the bench who can play.

"I am super pleased with how (assistant coach) Myron Kern has worked with the team on our situational hitting. Our hitting looked really good in our winter league and continues to improve."

The Cruisers lost 2017 graduate and catcher Jessie Rock, who was named first-team all-state for the second season in a row after batting .457 with 15 doubles, 10 home runs, 25 runs scored and 33 RBI. Rock, who also was first-team all-district for the third time and OCC-Capital Player of the Year for the second time, is now playing for Walsh University.

Senior Jodi Kern moves from first base to catcher, while senior Sara Gockenbach is back in the circle.

Last season, Gockenbach went 21-5 with a 1.39 ERA and 173 strikeouts in 156 innings and batted .361 with nine doubles, three home runs, 19 runs and 17 RBI in the leadoff spot. She was named first-team all-league.

Kern hit .409 with eight doubles, six home runs, 25 runs and 31 RBI and was second-team all-league.

"Jodi and Sara get to return (to being) the dynamic duo they were in middle school as pitcher and catcher," Downing said. "Jodi also has added some more pop to a bat that already was powerful last year. She must remain injury free for us to reach our goals.

"Sara's speed and accuracy are much improved from last year. She has gotten stronger, which should help come tournament time and should prepare her to compete in college, also at Walsh."

Senior Carsyn Saunders returns to left field, where she was named first-team all-league last year after hitting .439 with seven doubles, 24 runs and 20 RBI.

"Carsyn brings a much-needed confidence and calmness to our team," Downing said. "Her team-first attitude resonates every day and her batting was much more powerful this winter. We will need her to hit like she did at the end of the season last year. Her versatility allows us to play her almost everywhere."

Also back are juniors Lanie White (SS) and Lexi Wright (CF) and sophomores Macie Sporleder (3B), Ally Maddy (1B/P) and McKenzie Maddy (2B). The Maddy sisters were outfielders last season.

White (.374, 12 doubles, 5 home runs, 32 runs, 21 RBI) and Sporleder (.366, 7 doubles, 27 runs, 22 RBI) were second-team all-league, Wright made special mention all-league and Ally Maddy (.381) was honorable mention all-league.

"Lanie and Macie bring a lot of experience back to the left side of the infield," Downing said. "Lanie's bat has drastically improved from last year and she will bat in the three-hole to provide power and more consistency.

"Macie is the best fielder of our returning starters. Batting cleanup as a freshman should give her more confidence this year in the lineup. She needs to provide more extra-base hits this year and her added strength is showing so far in practice."

Seniors Aleah Brown and Allie Chandler are vying for the starting job in right field, junior Makayla Smith is expected to be the designated player and sophomore Milan Caldwell (1B) could be a valuable pinch-hitter.

Others seeking playing time are senior Kelsea Blaskis (OF) and juniors Taylor Hill (OF), Haylee Ottman (P) and Daryion Smith (C).

Pitching staff should propel baseball team

The baseball team will be relying on its pitching staff as it looks to improve on last season, when it finished 7-16 overall after losing to Gahanna 3-1 in the second round of the Division I district tournament.

"The strength of the team has to be our pitching," said fifth-year coach Dave Eft, whose team opened March 24 by splitting a doubleheader with Licking Heights, losing 4-0 and winning 9-4. "We don't have a ton of arms, but the arms we do have are experienced and have to lead us if we want to win.

"We will have to get better at the plate and become closer as teammates if we want to be successful. We need to do a better job with our situational hitting, moving runners and scoring runs."

Five starters return, including three who should lead the Cruisers' pitching rotation in senior Luis Pantoja, junior Logan Mayes and sophomore Caden Lowe.

"Luis has been one of our main guys on the mound since he was a sophomore, so we are looking to him to lead the way," Eft said. "Logan also has a great deal of experience on the mound and Caden gave us some great games last year as a freshman, so we'll look for him to build on that this season."

Pantoja and Lowe also will play in the infield, while Mayes could see playing time at catcher, in the infield or even in the outfield, Eft said.

Senior Daniel Fairchild (INF/P/OF) and sophomore Austin Snyder (INF) also return. Fairchild and senior Caleb Caldwell (INF/OF/P) are expected to add pitching depth as relievers and spot starters.

With just 10 full-time players on varsity, Eft is counting on his players' versatility.

"Obviously, all 10 players will play a great deal and their daily positions will be determined by our starting pitching," Eft said. "Fairchild is a wildcard on the mound for us. He is a big, strong kid who throws pretty hard."

Pantoja played second base last season when not pitching and batted .298 and was named first-team all-league, as the Cruisers went 6-9 in the OCC-Capital to place fourth behind champion Canal Winchester (13-2).

Snyder, who played shortstop, batted .282 and was special mention all-league and Mayes was honorable mention all-league.

Completing the roster are senior Chase Milner (OF), junior Logan Marburger (2B) and sophomores Austin Gautier (C/OF) and Jeremiah Slonaker (OF).

"We call (Caldwell) the Swiss army knife," said Eft, whose team begins league play Monday, April 2, at Franklin Heights. "He can play all over the field. Though he will play primarily outfield, we will use him everywhere. Milner is the best teammate we have on the team and he's a strong kid who can potentially make some noise at the plate.

"Gautier will be in the middle of the lineup and behind the plate most of the year. He had a good offseason in the weight room and should be among our top hitters, along with Pantoja, Snyder and Fairchild. Slonaker has a great deal of potential and is a really solid outfielder with pretty good speed. Marburger is our only left-handed hitter and he gained some varsity experience last year."

bemerine@thisweeknews.com

@Brad_ThisWeek

Schedules

BASEBALL

March 24 -- at Licking Heights (DH)

March 27 -- vs. West

March 29 -- vs. Bexley

*April 2 -- at Franklin Heights

*April 4 -- vs. Franklin Heights

*April 6 -- vs. Canal Winchester

April 7 -- vs. Briggs (DH)

*April 9 -- at Canal Winchester

*April 11 -- at New Albany

*April 13 -- vs. New Albany

April 14 -- at Hartley (DH)

*April 16 -- vs. Newark

*April 18 -- at Newark

*April 20 -- at Big Walnut

April 21 -- at Central Crossing (DH)

*April 23 -- vs. Big Walnut

*April 25 -- at Franklin Heights

*April 27 -- vs. Canal Winchester

*April 30 -- at New Albany

*May 2- vs. Newark

*May 4 -- at Big Walnut

May 5 -- at Johnstown with Logan

SOFTBALL

March 26 -- at Westland

March 27 -- vs. Hilliard Darby

March 28 -- at Central Crossing

March 29 -- at Hilliard Bradley

March 30 -- at Lancaster

April 2 -- Shenandoah Junction (W.Va.) Jefferson in Grand Strand Softball Classic in North Myrtle Beach, S.C.

April 3 -- Bladensburg (Md.) Elizabeth Seton in Grand Strand Softball Classic

April 4 -- Chesterfield (S.C.) Cheraw in Grand Strand Softball Classic

April 5 -- Bamberg (S.C.) Ehrhardt in Grand Strand Softball Classic

April 6 -- Penfield (N.Y.) in Grand Strand Softball Classic

April 10 -- vs. Upper Arlington

*April 11 -- at Franklin Heights

*April 12 -- vs. Canal Winchester

April 13 -- at Watterson

*April 16 -- vs. New Albany

*April 18 -- vs. Newark

*April 19 -- at Big Walnut

April 21 -- vs. Olentangy and Mount Vernon

*April 23 -- vs. Franklin Heights

*April 25 -- at Canal Winchester

*April 27 -- at New Albany

*April 30 -- at Newark

*May 2 -- vs. Big Walnut

May 4 -- at Westerville North

May 5 -- vs. Watkins Memorial and Ready

*League contest

Below are the coming schedules for the Groveport Madison boys tennis and track & field teams:

BOYS TENNIS

April 3 -- At Central Crossing

TRACK & FIELD

March 31 -- Newark Invitational

April 3 -- Cruiser Invitational