The softball season kicks off Friday, Aug. 18 with a matchup between Rolla and St. James, but what can we expect to see out of the three local softball teams this season? Youth will play a key role in all three teams, as Rolla, St. James and Newburg will all be freshmen and sophomore heavy.

Lady Bulldog pups look to improve 

The Rolla softball team was young last season and they will be again this year. The Lady Bulldogs have just one senior, Makenzie Proffitt, on their roster and most of the roster will be freshmen and sophomores. Despite their youth, head coach Tim Dunn has seen some good things out of his returning players.

"We're still young. We have one senior. We are a little more experienced, but not really," said Dunn. "We have an influx of freshmen again this year. Most of the sophomores, the freshmen that played last year, Emalee Grooms and (Lauren) Moersch, our pitchers, have really come along. You can see the increase in them, they both really look good this year. So far, that's been our strongest point, from what we can tell. 

"But we do have an influx of a few more freshmen and we look to improve experience-wise as much as we can as we go along. It's one of those things where it takes experience to get experience," added Dunn with a chuckle. 

Rolla graduated several starters last season, so there are several holes to fill in the outfield, behind the plate and at first. Cheyanne King will take over the catching duties for the Lady Bulldogs after catching for the JV team last season. Macie Montgomary, a freshman, will take over at first base. The entire outfield will change this season. Alexa Fultz saw some varsity time as a freshman last season, but she'll see even more in the outfield this year. She'll be joined by Kendra Cameron, as well Hannah Buecler and a few freshmen that could fight for time. Grooms, who spends a lot of time on the mound and played on the infield last season, will also see some time in the outfield. Coach Dunn thinks several players have filled in admirably so far, but he's still finding out where people fit.

"Obviously that creates opportunities for other kids and you just hope that the kids that are stepping in can do it justice and make the most of their opportunities. So far they've done a pretty good job of that. It's an ongoing thing," said Dunn. "We're still in the throws of really deciding who's going to play where. We had our jamboree last night and you can see somethings, but you don't really come to a conclusion of exactly who's going to play, when you have a lot of people to replace, you don't come to that conclusion until you're a couple games in." 

Rolla will have some returners though. Kristynn Hufford returns as the team's starting third baseman. Chloe Wood moved around the diamond last season, but she'll plant herself at second this season, for the most part. The Lady Bulldogs will also return their starting pitchers with Grooms and Moersch and Dunn has seen them develop more consistency so far. 

"Their consistency in throwing strikes has been huge," said Dunn of his sophomore pitchers. "One of the things that we tell them is that they have to be able to change speeds, to control your pitches, throw your best pitches. You don't have to show every pitch to every batter. They've done a really good job of doing that, controlling the strike zone, putting the ball where they need to put it. But consistency has been the main thing."

Dunn has seen a lot of improvement out of his young team so far. One of the standouts is Cameron, who was forced to sit out all season last year after and ACL injury, as well as their junior catcher, King. 

"Kendra Cameron, who's been playing some short and outfield for us, she had ACL surgery, so she had to miss all of last year. She's looked pretty good this year," said Dunn. "Cheyanne King behind the plate has done a good job. She continues to get better behind the plate...but everyone that played last year is better than they were last year." 

Coach Dunn isn't focused on setting goals for their win-loss record, he just wants to see his young team develop throughout the season. 

"What we really wanna see is development as we go along, progress in their play, individually and as a team," said Dunn. "We need to see them getting better at everything that we do and that just comes from playing." 

Fresh faces in St. James

The youth movement isn't just in Rolla. The Lady Tigers over in St. James have a lot of new faces on the softball team this year and have just two seniors on their roster. Unlike Rolla, St. James does have a slew of juniors, but they also have a ton of freshmen and sophomores. Even their upperclassmen are pretty new to the varsity. Kyler Dautenhahn will get the chance to contribute more at the varsity level for the first time in her senior season. 

"She's waited for this opportunity, she's worked hard, she's put in a lot of extra time. Over the summer I've seen a vast improvement in her game," said head coach Brad Purvis. "Everyone's got a little ways to go, but she's one that we're gonna be counting on. This is her time." 

There are a fair share of players returning to the lineup though. Junior Mikaela Donnelly will be a major player in this lineup both at the plate and behind it as the team's starting catcher. Other players that had consistent playing time last season include pitcher McKenzie Brennan, Hannah Shasserre, Hunter Pitts, Scout Paulus and Baylee Ambrose. Coach Purvis wants to see those players help some of the less experienced players establish themselves as varsity softball players. 

"Where their experience comes in is they're going to have to show some of those newer faces through the lineup. They have to lead by example," said the St. James head coach. "We talk about that all the time. Experience is important, it's a great things to have and we're fortunate that we have some of that coming back. Experience to where they played in big ballgames and close ballgames, tight ballgames in pressure situations, so they at least have been exposed to that. I think in the long run, that's going to help." 

St. James does have some big holes to fill in this season. Last year's graduating class included some studs in Devin Fuhring and Miya Goss to name a few. Shelby Quick will take the reigns from Fuhring and play center, but there are also a lot of battles for positions. Dautenhahn is fighting with Rachel Lucas for the starting spot at third, Shasserre and Paulus are battling for the gig at second. The rest of the outfield and first are still somewhat up for grabs as well. Purvis plans to play the hot hand and see who earns their spot in the lineup. 

"A starting nine can change not only game to game, but inning to inning, pitch to pitch," said the St. James head coach. "That's what we want, we want to create a little of that in practice. You want a little competition because people get complacent when there's nobody to push you or there's nobody to compete against, that's just kind of human nature. I have seen that help us to this point and hopefully that continues." 

Last season, McKenzie Brennan did a lion's share of the pitching, but she'll have some help this year. Kayla Hamilton, the team's other senior, will also toe the rubber for the Lady Tigers and coach Purvis hopes to see their innings even out this year. He is also looking into them relieving each other to change the pace of the game, as Hamilton is the harder thrower out of the two. 

"Hopefully this year we can be more of a split," said Purvis. "Kayla Hamilton has tweaked some things this summer and has looked very good. I can't say right now who the number one is."

Offensively, Pitts and Donnelly will be the mainstays in the heart of the lineup. Purvis hopes that they'll be able to spark the offense around them.

"Hitting-wise, we're gonna look to Hunter Pitts and Mikaela Donnelly. I foresee that being our 3-4 combo in the lineup. They bring a lot of experience to those spots too. They both started as freshmen, they both can stick the ball," said coach Purvis. "They go, we go. That's how I feel. If the middle of your lineup, especially this year, if they click it tends to be contagious."

Even with all of their youth and new players, coach Purvis isn't planning on lowering his expectations for the season.

"I always set expectations high. I never want to set them low. We come in and we challenge the girls," said the St. James head coach. "Each and every day you come here to practice, push yourself, push each other. That's just my philosophy, I guess. Come to practice, work hard. I don't (set goals for wins), I think if you work hard, the dividends will come."

A lot of cubs in the Lady Wolfpack

If St. James has a lot of players to replace, Newburg basically has a roster to replace this season. Last year, the Lady Wolves were very senior-heavy. They were carried bu the likes of Audrey Suschanke, Seely Friend, Rena Baumer, McKayla Callahan, Alexis Stevenson and Alyssa Dondlinger. Now Newburg is basically starting fresh. While they do have two seniors and four juniors, half of their 12 player roster is made up of freshmen and sophomores. Head coach Andrew Lott says that the key to the season is helping his young team build confidence.

"The biggest thing this year, we've got a young group of girls, so it's just getting that confidence. We're going to go out and play a lot of small ball, good defense. We've got a young freshman pitcher, we're just relying on her throwing strikes, nothing special, just throwing strikes and having the defense behind her to make the plays," said Lott. "Competing is our goal for this year."

The Lady Wolves will have a freshman duo of Suschankes on the mound and behind the plate. Macy will pitch for Newburg, while Audrey's little sister Marah catches. 

"(Marah) has some good potenial there. She's good and athletic," said Lott. "I feel confident in those two being only freshmen. Pitching and catching is so important to the game." 

The left side of the infield will be run by a pair of sophomores with Hannah Whittaker at third and Grace Affolter at shortstop. The right side of the infield will have a little bit more experience with junior Lorianne Prewett at second and senior Kaylee Burton at first. The outfield, however, is a little more unclear.

"The outfield is gonna be kind of hit and miss. There's four or five girls competing for spots in the outfield," said coach Lott. "My senior Sam Mathis is pretty settled in at centerfield and then from there you're looking at Izzy Bramel, Elena Adami, Erin Adami, Stacy Brown or Chrizma Boswell. Those girls are gonna be competing for left and right field and it'll just be a different lineup every game based on who's hot." 

While he only has two seniors, Lott plans on leaning on them to lead this team.

"I'm going to rely a lot on my two seniors, Sam and Kaylee," said coach Lott. "They don't have a lot of varsity experience because I had a good group last year and it was hard to crack that starting lineup, so it's their first year getting a crack at full time varsity starting time, but they do have the experience. They did get some DH at bats last year and a couple of spot starts. I'll rely on those two seniors to be senior role models and leadership." 

The Lady Wolves played summer ball in Rolla this summer, which played a huge role in the development of their younger players. They also got some coaching help from some of those graduated players

"Seely Friend was a huge help for me this summer. She helped assistant coach all through the summer, she never missed a practice, never missed a game," said coach Lott. "I also have Audrey here, she's actually here today and she's been helping out quite a bit with the younger girls." 

Coach Lott said this summer was crucial to his players. It's night and day seeing where they were at the beginning and where they are now.

"It was a great experience. We started out really rough. I think Macy through over 200 pitches, had like 18 walks. I knew we were going to have those growing pains, just ride the course, we're going to get there," said coach Lott. "But those teams that beat us at the beginning of the season, we came back and beat those teams the last couple of games of the season. There's some growth there where we weren't where we needed to be then we made some good progress over the summer. 

"If we can pick up where we left off in the summer, I'm pretty confident we're gonna be right there as far as being able to compete in those games," Lott added.

Like the other two area coaches, Lott isn't looking to set a goal for wins. He just wants to see his team continue to improve and grow.

"The biggest thing for them is going to be morale. As far having a set number of wins, I'm just kind of leaving that open. I think the sky's the limit for what we're capable of doing."