Coming off a school-record 20-win season, the Newcomerstown High softball team is looking to improve on the mark as the 2013 season begins.

Despite a stellar regular season a year ago, the ending was a major disappointment for NHS with a loss to Claymont in the sectional championship game.

Head coach John Dupke, who enters his fourth year leading the Lady Trojans' softball program, says that tough loss was hard to swallow.

"I still have nightmares about that loss to Claymont in the sectional finals," Dupke said. "We had such a great year, getting 20 wins to set a school record and earning a number one seed in the sectional for the first time. That was not the ending we wanted.

"That just gives us motivation for this year," he continued. "We are really looking forward to the season. The kids are excited...the coaches are excited. We're all ready to play ball."

On paper, the Lady Trojans look ready for another big year with the return of nine letterwinners, including four three-year veterans back from last year's 20-8 squad which finished third in the Inter-Valley Conference at 9-5.

Leading the Newcomerstown veteran charge once again will be senior all-Ohio performer Allie Hinton, set for her final campaign for the Orange and Black.

The hard-hitting Hinton earned second team all-Ohio, first team all-Eastern District and first team all-IVC honors. She posted a robust .562 batting average with 41 RBI, 16 doubles and three home runs to lead a potent Newcomerstown hitting attack.

"It all starts with Allie for us, no doubt," Dupke said. "She has been our go-to player the last few years and will be again this year. Allie is just a special player and I'm looking for even bigger things from her this year."

Along with Hinton, Dupke welcomes back the return of three more senior three-year letterwinners in Lexi Montgomery, Aeriel Green and Cydney McMillan who will once again play key roles for the Lady Trojans.

Montgomery will be moving from third base to behind the plate, bringing with her a .322 batting average from last year.

"Lexi will take over at catcher for us this year," Dupke said. "She played third for us last year, but she's a real good athlete and confident she will get the job done behind the plate."

Green is the second leading returning hitter from last year, finishing at a .349 average with 13 RBI, seven doubles and three home runs.

"Aeriel brings a lot of power to our line-up," Dupke said. "She will probably take over at third base for Lexi, and she could also play some second base for us. A real hard-working girl, just like all my seniors."

Also back for part-time duty is McMillan, a three-time performer in the OHSAA state track meet who will also run track for the Lady Trojans. McMillan was a force from the pitching circle for NHS last year with an impressive 18-7 record with an ERA of 3.45 while racking up 119 strikeouts.

"Cydney is splitting time with us and track again this year," Dupke said. "Her main focus will be track, where she is a three-time state qualifier in the pole vault, but we're happy to get her any time we can. In past years, we have counted on her a lot. Now we just need some younger players to step up and fill that pitching void when Cydney's not with us."

As luck would have it, Dupke feels blessed to have a total of four incoming freshmen pitchers who he feels can handle the load.

Riley Kellish (P-OF), Jayde Bricker (P-OF), Karlee Peach (P-1B) and Makenzie Moner (P-2B) have all gained plenty of experience with playing travel softball over the years and Dupke thinks that will help make a smooth transition to high school softball.

"All four of them had got a lot of great experience from pitching in travel softball," Dupke said. "I think they are all very capable of stepping in and getting the job done. It's really a nice thing to have. We've never had five solid pitchers like we do this year. My biggest problem might juts be getting them all enough innings to stay sharp, but it's a nice problem to have, so I won't complain about that.

"Another great things about all four is they are versatile and can play a number of positions for us," Dupke continued. "That's just a real plus and really adds to our depth."

Yet another big bat returning for Dupke is senior Katelin Stringer, a two-year letterwinner who chalked up a batting average of .432 last year with 33 RBI and three home runs.

"Katelin played a lot at DP for us last year," Dupke said. "Right now, she's battling for a spot at first base also and she could see action at both spots."

Completing the Lady Trojans' returning veterans are juniors Samantha Fuller (OF) and Alicia Moore (OF). Boosting the Newcomerstown attack will be the addition of a pair of transfer students in senior Kara Jenkins (OF-3B) and junior Kylie Morris (3B-C). Morris lettered at Indian Valley last year playing right field, while Jenkins who played at NHS as a freshman, returns to the Lady Trojans after two seasons at Tuscarawas Central Catholic.

"Kylie is a solid player. She has a good bat and just adds more to

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our offense," Dupke explained. "We're happy to get Kara back for her senior year. She also brings a nice bat and has got real good speed. We're going to put that speed to use in center field for us."

When looking at his team, Dupke was quick to point to the Lady Trojans' potent offense as an area of strength, But he feels that could be even more the case this time around.

"Our offense is definitely our strength," Dupke said. "Last year, we scored 222 runs in 28 games...that's an average of almost eight runs a game...I'll take that any time. I really feel we could be even better on offense this year because we've added some more bats and with a year of more experience we should be better."

Rounding out the Newcomerstown varsity roster will be freshmen Jorden Moore (OF-C) and Miranda Thornton (OF).

"We don't have a junior varsity team this year since we only have 15 girls out," Dupke said, "but even with the small numbers, this is by far my deepest team to date. There is some real competition going on for starting spots and that's great because they are pushing each other to be their best."

No surprise when looking at the race for the IVC softball title, Dupke says perennial power Strasburg will once again be the team to beat.

"Until somebody knocks them off, Strasburg is still the 'top dog', but this could be the year we can make a run at them," the NHS coach said. "They just have a great program and just reload each year. Sandy Valley should be strong also, and TCC was second last year and returns a lot of players.

"On a nightly basis, it will be a dogfight in the IVC," Dupke continued. "I'm confident we will be right there in the thick of things for that IVC title."

Dupke's coaching staff includes assistant Chuck Peach and volunteer assistant Krystin Raach.

Newcomerstown opens the season with a doubleheader at West Muskingum on Saturday.