Last spring, expectations were higher for the Newcomerstown High softball team.
The Lady Trojans, under coach John Dupke in just his second season, produced with a sterling 17-9 record including a regular season win over state-ranked and eventual state champion Strasburg, a Division IV Sectional championship and for the first time in school history a D-IV District runner-up finish to Strasburg, so the team and community have raised the expectations yet again for the upcoming campaign as Newcomerstown moves up to Division III.
"We like our chances," Dupke said, "but we were fourth in the Inter-Valley Conference last year and this is a very strong softball conference. It will be a dogfight every night we play."
Dupke, who was the Eastern District D-IV "Coach of the Year" last spring, has a 16-player roster, including 10 returning letterwinners (one three-year and six two-year letterwinners), and only two seniors with several new players, some upperclass and a couple of freshmen. However, with those numbers, the Lady Trojans won't be able to field a junior varsity squad.
Lost to graduation were outfielder Chelsea Fenton, an Eastern District second team selection, and outfielder Sabrina Postel. Fenton has returned to assist Dupke this spring.
Pitching is a big key and last year's No. 1 starter, two-year letterwinner Cydney McMillan, had track as her primary sport in the spring. She is still participating in both sports, but this year she has made softball her primary sport so she will be available to be in the circle more than she was last year. McMillan finished last year with a 9-5 record and a 2.50 E.R.A.
In her absence last spring, then sophomore and two-year award winner Aeriel Green was thrust into her first experience in the pitching role. She responded with a 8-4 record and garnered Eastern District D-IV second team honors. Junior letterwinner Makenna Mullane became the backup pitcher last spring and now adds depth at that position.
"It will be nice to have Cydney on more of a regular basis," Dupke admitted, "but Aeriel did a great job in her first effort ever pitching. Makenna has worked really hard at pitching in the off season and will add a lot of depth."
Back to lead the offense and play shortstop is junior two-year monogram winner Allie Hinton. Hinton led the Lady Trojans at the plate last year with a sizzling .531 batting average and she smacked two home runs in the sectional tournament. For her efforts, she was a first team selection in both the IVC and Eastern District and picked up first team all-Ohio honors as a sophomore.
At first base will be senior two-year letterwinner Kelsey McCune with back-up from letterwinner Katelin Stringer who saw a lot of time last year as the designated player.
At second will either be Green or McMillan, whoever is not in the pitching circle, while junior two-year award winner Alexus 'Lexi' Montgomery will play third base. Behind the plate will be senior three-year monogram winner Meghan Mullane.
"We should be solid defensively with the infield intact," Dupke said. "Hitting will be our strong point with four of the players in the starting lineup consistent power hitters. We are looking for Hinton to hit the ball hard this year and Stringer came on late last year as the DP and she will probably see a lot of time in that position this year. "
The outfield is really the only area of concern for Dupke as he returns just one starter from last year.
Senior two-year letterwinner Taylor Postel will return to center field where she earned Eastern District first team honors last season.
In left field will probably be sophomore Alicia Moore, who played second base last year but brings a lot of speed to the outfield, and in right will be either Mullane or sophomore Samantha Fuller.
Other junior candidates include outfielders Natalie Amore and Libby Beall along with sophomore outfielder Baylee Radtke.
Two freshmen -- outfielder/catcher Sam Watson and outfielder Tiffany Yoho --round out the roster.
"We will be very veteran," Dupke admitted, "but that will make it hard for some of the younger players to get playing time. It does create good competition from within and we also have a good group of eighth graders coming up. Our pitchers are experienced, but still young even though they are juniors. We will have to throw strikes, play defense and hit the ball."
It won't be an easy run through the IVC as Dupke points out numerous teams that will be much-improved this year and the non-conference schedule will not be easy either with doubleheaders against Tusky Valley, West Muskingum and Minerva and single games against River View, Indian Valley, Claymont and Shenandoah.
"We will have to be on our 'A' game every night," Dupke said. "We tasted success last year and there is a lot of excitement in the community this year, but we will have to work hard every night."