Kirsten Tibbitts wasn't sure the New Albany High School softball team would have a sometimes powerful offense this season, let alone figure that she would have hit a team-high six home runs through 14 games.
Another thing the Eagles' junior third baseman did expect has come to pass -- that her class would be the core of a team trying to gather momentum heading into the Division I district tournament.
New Albany's four juniors -- the others are right fielder Alex Howell, pitcher/outfielder Taylor Rhea and shortstop Emma Valley -- have been the team's primary catalysts all season. The Eagles were 6-8 overall and 4-3 in the OCC-Capital Division before playing Canal Winchester on April 30.
Rhea has been the team's primary pitcher all season and through 14 games led the Eagles in hits with 19 and was tied for second in home runs with three, along with Halle Galbraith and Sophia Halliday. Valley took over at shortstop for Sierra Parkinson, who now plays at North Carolina, and Howell is in her second year as an anchor in the outfield.
"We are (the core) just because we've been together such a long time and we get along so well," said Tibbitts, who also had 17 hits through 14 games. "We have this connection. We understand each other and how we play. We help mold the team together. Everyone sees how close we are and they want to have that bond too."
Rhea, who was 3-4 with a 6.81 ERA, 10 walks and 30 strikeouts in 48 1/3 innings entering the week, said the junior class considers itself a bridge from the era when Parkinson and pitcher Sydney Warinner, who now plays at Louisville, led the Eagles. In 2015, that duo helped lead New Albany to its first league championship since 1993 and first Division I district title since 1986.
"We know what it takes to be the best. The one thing I really remember from them is attitude and how to handle bad situations and also their hard work," Rhea said. "I would see Sierra out there hitting even when she didn't need to. That's the thing that rubbed off on me personally."
Howell generally has hit second in the lineup, behind Halliday, a freshman, and ahead of Galbraith, a sophomore. Tibbitts and Rhea have hit fourth and fifth, respectively, in recent weeks.
Halliday had 16 hits and Galbraith had 14 through 14 games. The team had 17 home runs in that stretch.
Another freshman, Olivia Angles, had a walk-off home run April 25 as the Eagles edged Big Walnut 7-6.
Two consecutive five-inning losses followed, 13-2 to Groveport on April 26 and 10-0 to Hilliard Darby on April 27, but the Eagles were scheduled to finish OCC-Capital play earlier this week against Canal Winchester and back-to-back games against Franklin Heights on May 1 and 2. The Indians and Falcons both were in the bottom half of the league standings entering the week.
"(A win like April 25) gives us hope for better results the rest of the season," Howell said. "The games against Groveport didn't go like we wanted, but a win like that gives us a lot of confidence. We've become a better softball team because of those games and that will show on the field."
New Albany is seeded 28th for the 46-team Division I district tournament. The Eagles will play host to 30th-seeded Logan in the first round Monday, May 7, and the winner will visit 10th-seeded Teays Valley for a second-round game Wednesday, May 9.
New Albany lost to Teays Valley 5-4 during Battle for the Cure on April 21 in Lancaster and has not played Logan this season.
The second-round winner will play ninth-seeded Grove City or 42nd-seeded Walnut Ridge in a district semifinal May 14.
The Eagles also have regular-season games remaining at Dublin Coffman (Thursday, May 3), at home against Reynoldsburg (Friday, May 4) and at Lakewood (Saturday, May 5).
"Where they are now compared to how they were early in the season, it's like a completely different team," coach Stephanie Andrick said. "I don't know even when we had Sydney and Sierra that I've seen such a quick turnaround in their work ethic and daily approach to the game. They are much more focused. They are realizing their abilities and believe in themselves."
Balanced production leading track teams
Of the boys and girls track and field teams' 17 top-four finishes in the Milt Will Invitational on April 27 at Canal Winchester, 12 came on the track and five were in the field, seeming to prove girls coach Amy Glenn's assertion that the Eagles have been balanced even as sprints have been a highlight.
Wins from Grace Lowe in the 400 meters (59.42 seconds) and the 1,600 relay (4:07.27) and 3,200 relay (9:53.1) led the girls to 88 points and third place out of eight teams behind champion Pickerington North (154). Kenny McDonald won the long jump (21 feet, 5 inches) and the 800 relay (1:33.59) was first to lead the boys to 76 points and fourth place in the eight-team field behind champion North (143).
McDonald was 14th in the long jump in the Division I state meet last year.
"We have some depth, which is nice," Glenn said, citing senior girls runners Jalyn Austin (sprints), Sophie Matt (middle distance) and Alyssa Painter (distance) as well as hurdler Mia Lobel and freshmen sprinters Nicole Stewart and Jayla Reese. "We did anticipate that and we were able to maneuver around some relays and open events to score some points. We're bringing along our field events; we have a lot of young throwers who are up and coming. We're getting points in a lot of areas. We're pretty well-rounded on the boys side, too. It's exciting."
According to Glenn, other top boys contributors have included Gabe Glenn in the high jump, hurdler Brody Kidwell, thrower Ben Simmons and sprinters Alex Cox, Max Mathias and Drew Watson.
Glenn tied for second in the high jump (6-0) in the Milt Will Invitational.
The Eagles wrapped up the home portion of their schedule April 30 against Gahanna and will compete in the Warhawk Invitational on Friday, May 4, at Otterbein.
Baseball team faced crucial week
The baseball team entered the week sharing the OCC-Capital lead with Big Walnut with four league games remaining, and a league championship might not be the only thing decided between the two teams within the next few weeks.
A 2-1, nine-inning loss to the Golden Eagles on April 27 dropped the Eagles into a first-place tie at 9-2. New Albany was scheduled to play Groveport on April 30, Franklin Heights on May 1 and back-to-back games against Canal Winchester on May 2 and Thursday, May 3.
The Eagles, who defeated Canal Winchester 4-0 on April 18, also play Friday, May 4, at Dublin Scioto.
New Albany, which was 13-7 overall before April 30, had an eight-game winning streak snapped in the loss to Big Walnut.
Dillon Masters and Mike Sokol combined for a no-hitter April 26 in a 16-0, five-inning win at Franklin Heights. Sokol struck out eight in three innings and Masters had four strikeouts in two.
Voted the sixth seed for the 48-team Division I district tournament, New Albany took a first-round bye and will play host to 22nd-seeded Hamilton Township or 34th-seeded Westerville South in the second round Wednesday, May 9. The Eagles have not played either team this season.
The winner will face 11th-seeded Big Walnut, 38th-seeded Briggs or 39th-seeded Licking Heights in a district semifinal May 14.
Boys tennis team extends title streak
The boys tennis team continued a streak of perfection last week, having clinched its 12th consecutive OCC-Capital championship April 25 by shutting out Canal Winchester 5-0.
New Albany is 76-0 in league matches since joining the OCC before the 2006-07 school year.
The Eagles were 10-0 overall before playing Columbus Academy on April 30.
Below are the coming schedules for the New Albany boys lacrosse, girls lacrosse, boys tennis and boys volleyball teams:
May 8 -- Home vs. DeSales
May 5 -- Home vs. Cincinnati Sycamore
May 8 -- At Dublin Coffman
May 7 -- Home vs. Hilliard Davidson
May 8 -- Home vs. Wellington
May 3 -- Home vs. Coffman
May 8 -- At Westerville South