Winter has not officially begun yet, and Mark Thomas already is thinking about warmer weather.

Winter has not officially begun yet, and Mark Thomas already is thinking about warmer weather.

Thomas does not necessarily dislike snow and colder temperatures, he's just anxious to begin his first season as softball coach at Delaware Hayes High School and his first time leading any varsity program.

"I ecstatic and I can't wait until March 9 when we are allowed to have our first official practice, whether it's outdoors or not," said Thomas, who has been an assistant in softball and football at Hayes and also is the junior varsity girls basketball coach. "Pitchers and catchers will start Feb. 23."

Thomas was approved by the school board in early September. He replaces Cari Walker, who left after one season to return to Iowa. Walker, a former standout shortstop at Minnesota State, moved here to replace Jim Warbel after her boyfriend took a teaching position at Olentangy.

"Mark has shown that he works well with the kids. He has been coaching for some time with the football, softball and girls basketball programs," athletics director Kevin Reed said. "He's very enthusiastic and ready to be a head coach for the first time. He's got a great group of parents and players to work with, so we expect him to be successful.

"He's taking over a program that's had a couple tough seasons, but overall, has been one of the strongest programs here at Hayes. They've been very successful and are respected throughout the Central District. I think the proof of that is the number of candidates who responded."

Walker guided the Pacers to a 10-14 overall record, including a 4-6 mark in the OCC-Central Division. Five starters chose not to return from 2007, a season which finished in turmoil as the Pacers went 6-20 overall, 0-10 in the league and failed to reach a district semifinal for the first time in nine seasons. Warbel resigned immediately after the season.

Thomas worked as an assistant for Warbel in 1992-94. He is beginning his fourth season in the girls basketball program. Thomas is in his second stint on the football staff. He was an assistant from 1992-95 and returned to the staff in 2003.

One of the first things Thomas will seek to accomplish is to find a replacement for pitcher Emily Young, one of four starters lost to graduation. Young was 9-11 with a 2.45 ERA. She struck out 153 and walked 27 in 148 innings.

"Softball is all about pitching, so that will obviously be the first thing we address," Thomas said. "I've seen Kimmi Haller, Tia Hinten, Kree Blakeman and Paige Hamon and I think there's some talent there. Right now, I'd say we'd be looking at them to mature and develop into strong pitchers. We'll likely pitch by committee, so they'll all get their chances."

Haller, a junior, pitched 11 innings last season. Hamon, a senior, pitched some as a freshman. Blakeman, a senior, and Hinten, a sophomore, have no varsity experience. While the pitching is inexperienced, Thomas thinks the offense will shine.

"We've got some really good bats and speed, which is a blessing," he said. "I feel confident in our ability to put runs on the board because we can do it in a number of ways. Plus, I really like our defense. Our pitchers should have a strong defense behind them and also have some run support."

Starters expected to return include seniors Jen Crozier (CF), Lindsay Fowler (LF) and Hamon (3B), junior Kayleigh Huck (SS) and sophomores Cindy Bowman (2B) and Kalene Schmidt (RF).

"They have experience and should be the core group," Thomas said. "I expect big things from them, although they may not be starting in the same positions they were last year. We'll see how things work out."

Huck led the team in all offensive categories (.373, 17 runs, 17 RBI, 4 home runs, 10 doubles, 7 stolen bases). She struck out seven times in 75 at-bats and had a .693 slugging percentage.

Schmidt (.311, 11 runs), Bowman (.232, 9 runs, 6 RBI) and Hamon (.222, 6 RBI) followed. Junior Taylor Krinn hit well (.313) in limited time coming off the bench.