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Softball preview: Area teams vie for district title berths

Mar. 30—Local softball teams return a lot of talent this spring as teams battle for the right to hoist a District 10 trophy on Memorial Day.

Seventeen all-region selections, a District 10 champion, a Division I commit and numerous talented players will battle for the Region 2 and Region 5 titles, as well as a district title and beyond.

Meadville

The Meadville softball program has steadily improved with head coach Renee Ashton leading the Bulldogs. Last season saw Meadville qualify for the District 10 playoffs, with Conneaut beating the Bulldogs in the opening round.

"Last year was definitely a step forward for the MASH softball program. We are excited to continue the growth and progress we have been working hard to achieve," Ashton said. "The next step is to keep building and developing an elite team. Our goals are always to work hard to perfect our strengths and strengthen our weaknesses.

"We now have an experienced and a talented core that can definitely go far in our Region, and the ultimate goal is to win the D-10 championship."

Last year's team belted 28 home runs. Kendall Mealy, a returning junior, led the way with six. She also led the team in batting average (.484), hits (31), runs (27), RBI (23) and triples (2).

In the circle, Rylee Kregel returns as the ace after striking out 80 batters last year. Kregel, Lila Kightlinger and Grace Curtiss should split time pitching.

"The experience these players have is going to help with their confidence going into big games. They have worked their way up to this level of play and they are seeing the big picture more clearly," Ashton said. "Rylee, Grace and Lila, along with junior catcher Teagan Reichel, are going to have a huge role in our success this year.

"All of these players are also dangerous at the plate. Kendall and sophomore Addyson Kregel are phenomenal middle infielder and hitters. They work together so well and will come up with the big plays and hits in the big moments."

Meadville will compete for a Region 5 title with Conneaut, Cathedral Prep, General McLane, Warren, Erie and McDowell. The Bulldogs lost their season opener in an overtime loss to Cochranton, but beat Hickory 13-0 in their home-opener on Thursday.

Conneaut

No team lost more firepower to graduation than Conneaut did. The Eagles graduated two all-state players in Brooke Wise and Linda Shepard, as well as all-region selection Kaley Cook.

Conneaut was 13-7 last season and lost in the District 10 semifinal game to Cathedral Prep, 2-1. The Eagles won a playoff game last year and the season before. Despite all the success, the Eagles return just a handful of starters.

"Losing Brooke Wise and Linda Shepard will be hard to replace their production at the plate, work ethic toward the sport, and in the circle, but we have a nice core group of starters from last year's team and a bunch of young talented ladies ready to prove themselves," Conneaut head coach Jason Onderko said. "Kylie Shrock and Jaidyn Jordan are returning seniors from our starting lineup that will be stepping up in the leadership role, as well as our returning junior catcher Lainie Harrington."

Harrington was a first-team all-region catcher as a sophomore. Schrock was an all-region designated player. Also on the all-region second-team was Jordan, at outfield.

"Our varsity and JV team has had a lot of success over the last few years, and we view this year as a reloading year," Onderko said. "With the amount of talent we have coming up, we view this season as being competitive within ourselves and against our opponents. We want the girls to come in everyday and 'Learn from it, grow from it and do something about it.'"

Top returning batters are Jordan, Shrock and Harrington. Jordan had a .485 average with 16 hits and 13 runs. Shrock and Harrington added nine and eight hits, respectively.

In the circle, Onderko expects Shrock and Jordan to lead the way.

"Seniors Kylie and Jaidyn are expected to see a lot of time in the circle this year as well as our sophomore Kaylin Faust," Onderko said. "Our top offensive players coming back from last year are Kylie, Jaidyn, Lainie and we expect to see big strides from Jillian Mihoci, Courtney and Emily Vennare, and Hailey Gilliland."

Young players that could make an impact this season are Riley Miller, Bailey Absten, Abby Potts, BreAnne Dendis, Carmen Bowman and Charlee Sharp.

Conneaut opened the season with a 4-2 loss at Saegertown on Friday. The Eagles are scheduled to enter region play next week.

Cambridge Springs

Cambridge Springs won a District 10 Class 1A championship last season. Eight seniors are gone from that squad, but this year's Blue Devils are young and talented.

Last year's team motto was 'Live by 10.' This year, Cambridge Springs head coach Angie Mumford aims to have her team unleash.

"Unleash. Unleash everything. Unleash our fear, unleash anything that's holding you back," Mumford said. "Play all out by unleashing that fear."

Helping to unleash it all will be senior outfielder and returning all-region Kylee Miller.

"Kylee Miller is our leader," Mumford said. "She is our center fielder, she's started there all these years. We're excited for her senior season and she is definitely our leader."

In the circle, sophomore Kayla Crawford will be the ace after splitting time with Hailee Rodgers last season. Sophomore catcher Morgan Dunton also returns with another year of varsity softball under her belt.

"We've changed a lot of positions because we graduated eight from last year's team," Mumford said. "We had a number of girls who worked hard this offseason and they're stepping into those new roles."

Sophomore Jaydan Simmons returns at third base and Jayden Newell will be the full-time shortstop after splitting time last season.

"Triniti Caldwell, Sydney Zilhaver and Payton Leandro are all going to play key positions for us," Mumford said. "Quinn Eaglen is also going to step into one of those key roles."

"Our goal this season is to peak at the right time. We know that we are young, but we're young and talented," Mumford said. "If we can put it all together and peak at the right time, good things are going to happen."

Maplewood

Maplewood ended last season 11-5 overall and was in contention for a region title. It's a big improvement from 7-8 in 2022 and five wins in 2021. To make the leap to a region title, the Tigers will have to do so with a new head coach.

Jeremy Post is in for Brad Crawford and Post is set to lead the Tigers.

"I'm a Maplewood Alumnus. I have a great deal of pride for our school and the Maplewood community, and I love this sport," Post said. "I started out coaching in Little League, then a few years coaching travel softball teams, and I have been on staff with MHS Softball for three seasons prior to this season."

Post, having seen the Tigers improvement over the past couple years, wants to see his team continue to improve.

"I expect that our team will continue the progress that we've seen in the past few seasons. Winning a region championship has been our goal for a few years. That is still our goal," Post said. "The team has improved each of the past couple years. We have to stay focused and work hard. We can't assume that we're just going to be better without putting in the work."

The only senior gone is McKenna Crawford, a first-team all-region outfielder. The rest of the starting lineup is slated to return, including junior pitcher Rhinn Post. Post is entering her third season starting in the circle.

"Rhinn continues to develop nicely. We're looking forward to another great season from her," Post said. "Freshman Jorja Holeva is coming in looking strong, as well as some others."

Offensively, the team should be balanced, according to Post.

"There are several that seem to have put in the work during the off-season to take a big step offensively. The whole collective seems to be solid. We've been focusing on offense," Post said. "There are few more consistent than Jocelynn Lane. She's been very dependable in the batter's box.

"Izzy Somerville really showed us last season that she has what it takes in the outfield. Madyson Banik continues to be a strong member of our team and Sheila Despenes should have a great season. She's a great leader on and off the field."

Maplewood opened the season with a 12-1 win against Eisenhower on Wednesday. The Tigers will battle Cambridge Springs, Cochranton, Saegertown, Iroquois, Rocky Grove, Youngsville and Eisenhower for the Region 2 crown.

Saegertown

The Saegertown Panthers suffered a disappointing first-round exit in last season's District 10 playoffs, but return an experienced group of starters this season.

Last year's loss was tough to swallow, but the team is focused on improving and learning from it, head coach Jenn Krider said.

"While it definitely was a hard hit at the time, our focus is always learning from our mistakes and moving forward. We stress that as the season progresses we need to become better and more consistent with executing the little things, controlling our response to failure and the ability to remain focused," Krider said. "It is about maintaining our urgency throughout a long and unpredictable season, constantly improving and peaking at the right time."

Helping the Panthers peak at the right time is returning ace Mikaila Obenrader. Obenrader, a Division I commit to Canisius University, delivered 192 strikeouts last season and 11 earned runs.

Obenrader also posted the team's best batting average (.434). She led the team in RBIs (20), home runs (4), triples (4) and doubles (4). Also returning offensively is Rylie Braymer, who led the team in hits with 20 and had 24 runs a year ago.

"Every year we set our expectations for performance at a high level. We have a core group of very talented and experienced players who have been a part of a history making season with this program," Krider said. "We expect this experience and confidence to motivate and set the tone for each practice and game."

Also returning with a batting average above .300 is Maggie Triola, Maddy Pratt, Rhia Paris and Alyssa Arblaster. Pratt, a sophomore, is expected to play a big role offensively and defensively, Krider said.

Saegertown is a Class 2A team, but competes in Region 2 with mostly 1A teams, including Cambridge Springs, Cochranton, Eisenhower, Youngsville, Rocky Grove, Iroquois and Maplewood (2A).

Cochranton

Cochranton softball played for a District 10 championship in 2022, but suffered a first-round exit last season. What do the Cardinals need to do this season to return to a D-10 title appearance? According to head coach Mark McGuire, they need to play their own brand of softball.

"We need to play Cochranton softball, to put it in a nutshell," McGuire said. "Play our game, no one else's."

The Cardinals will lean on senior Brooklyn Needler in the circle, but McGuire has a couple of arms he can utilize this season.

Needler struck out 74 batters and allowed 41 earned runs last season in 89 innings of action. Junior Dani Hoffman fanned 51 batters in 27 innings. Claire McCartney and Jadin Frayer, a sophomore and a freshman, will also see time pitching.

Offensively, McGuire will look to Hoffman and Needler to lead the team. Hoffman has the highest returning batting average (.333) while Needler had 14 hits a season ago. Other players McGuire expects to step up are Peyton Miller, McCartney and Addi Custead.

Young players playing big roles this season are Mara Swartz at third base, Reagann McClain at second base and Custead at shortstop.

As for goals this season, McGuire put it simply.

"We plan on playing on Memorial Day Monday," AKA, play for a D-10 championship.

Cochranton opened the season with an 8-7 overtime win against Meadville. Frayer had a home run in her freshman debut and Needler earned the win in the circle.

Alex Topor can be reached at (814) 724-6370 or by email at atopor@meadvilletribune.com.