With only five seniors expected to compete this spring, the Gahanna Lincoln softball team understood that newcomers and young players were going to play a vital role as it attempted to add to a run of seven consecutive Division I district championships.
Senior catcher and co-captain Caroline Heller was at the forefront in the leadership longtime coach Jim Campolo was seeking before the spring sports season was initially postponed and later canceled because of the COVID-19 coronavirus pandemic.
"I did tell our seniors that it honestly comes down to them when we did our conditioning and, without a doubt, it was probably my favorite year ever with the conditioning part of the workout because of how those seniors were leading us," said Campolo, who was in his 20th season leading the Lions. "Caroline (was) a big part of that.
"There wasn't any conflict at all throughout the whole conditioning process. I told people it was actually fun having this kind of team. We were going to be really young this year, so it would have been an interesting year. I was very disappointed for us and the kids that they didn't get to play as much as I thought they would."
Heller was set for her third season as the Lions' starting catcher and likely would have batted in the middle of the lineup after earning special mention all-OCC-Ohio Division honors last spring when Gahanna finished 17-10 overall, tied for third in the league at 6-4 behind co-champions Lancaster and Pickerington Central (both 8-2) and reached a regional semifinal before falling to Mount Vernon 8-5.
"I really try and pride myself on being a big leader for my teammates and especially for the freshmen," said Heller, an Otterbein commit. "I once was a freshman and I know how it feels to be thrown into a program with such a big legacy. You need that person. It just really helps me to remind myself that I know what I'm doing. It's a little different than middle school, but you have to tough through it and I just wanted to be that person for these freshmen."
Heller has spent time working on her softball skills as often as possible with the hope of competing for the USSSA Pride 18U travel team later this summer along with Lions senior teammate Sydney Neville.
According to guidelines set by Gov. Mike DeWine, players involved in summer sports are required to practice social distancing as much as possible.
"We just had our first practice and it was definitely different," Heller said. "We did have to stay far away from each other, but it was just nice to be able to be with my friends again and be able to speak with them in person and not just over the phone.
"I've been working out for college the last few weeks and my boyfriend doesn't work so we throw together a lot. I hit 24/7 just to keep myself in shape for the college season and the travel season."
Heller, who batted .390 and was honorable mention all-league as a sophomore in 2018 when the Lions went 20-9, will be joining an Otterbein program that included 12 players from central Ohio this spring. The Cardinals were 6-3 when the NCAA canceled its spring sports season on March 12.
Heller projects to be a catcher for Otterbein.
"I love leading the field and making plays and just everything about (softball)," Heller said. "I don't know if there's a specific moment, but my dad was big at getting me to stick with it. He used to play baseball in high school and my mom also played softball, so it's kind of in my genes."
Heller has tried to stay as optimistic about the future as possible during the pandemic.
"(The senior class) basically grew up together, so we're pretty close with each other and like to stay in touch," she said. "I definitely have been trying to keep myself looking at this in a better light than being really negative about it. I really miss my friends, but things are starting to open and I have my family behind me."