Johnson County has become a hotbed for high school softball in recent years.
Center Grove, winner of five state titles, is a traditional state power. Greenwood served notice last year that it has a program to be reckoned with, becoming the first school other than the Trojans to win the Johnson County Tournament. Edinburgh has won three sectional titles during the past four seasons, reaching the Class A final four in 2011.
And then there is the Class 4A sectional Center Grove hosts each May. The Trojans, Franklin, Greenwood and Whiteland tangle with Franklin Central and New Palestine in what Grizzly Cubs coach Joe Paszek calls the toughest sectional in the state.
This year, Greenwood — ranked No. 1 in Class 4A for a portion of last season and No. 4 at the end of the regular season — returns a strong lineup.
But every other county school will look to younger players to fill holes left by departed seniors from a year ago.
Center Grove never really rebuilds.
Still, the Class 4A No. 7 Trojans begin this season without seven starters from last year’s Metropolitan Interscholastic Conference title team, which fell to eventual state runner-up Franklin Central in the sectional.
Speedy senior Sarah Thompson, an Indiana University recruit, will patrol center field and be counted on to get the offense going. In addition, Trojans return their primary battery of pitcher Abbey Pratt and catcher Mallory Baker.
Coach Russ Milligan said the duo, both juniors, set the tone for the rest of the squad.
“Pitching and catching make up the personality of your team,” Milligan said. “And with those two back, that hasn’t changed. Mallory is a great general on the field, which is something you need to have to win.”
Senior Olivia Leisz will play first base, while sophomore Taylor Hammill will slot behind Pratt in the rotation.
Milligan said the roster, which features two seniors, five juniors, four sophomores and up to two freshmen, has the talent to keep the Trojans in the mix in their brutal sectional.
“We don’t have the ‘best of’ anything,” Milligan said. “My job is to get them to be the most well-rounded team in the state.”
He added that the Trojans’ relative inexperience does not change the expectations within the program.
“Our goals are the same, and that’s to win state,” Milligan said. “I think there are two to three teams in our sectional that could win state, though. It’s just a nasty sectional that is hard to get out of.”
The Lancers were the only Johnson County school to win a sectional championship last year, losing to Rising Sun in the regional. This year, they seek their fourth sectional title in five years.
First-year coach Autumn Humbaugh inherits a very young roster and must replace the team’s top pitcher and several important cogs in the lineup.
On the mound, freshman Bailey Woodall will step in for the graduated Jennifer Stinson as the No. 1 starter.
In early practices, Woodall has impressed with the bat, as well, and will work with senior Marissa Whitis and junior Courtney Woodall to drive the Lancers’ offense.
Humbaugh said Whitis, the team’s only senior, and a seven-player junior class have played important roles in preparing their younger teammates for the season.
“Our upperclassmen have really stepped up and assumed leadership responsibilities,” Humbaugh said. “As long as each player continues to display a drive and passion for the game, learns from their mistakes and consistently shows improvement, I believe this season will be a successful one for us.”
The Grizzly Cubs, who lost five seniors to graduation, will be built around three seniors who have started nearly every game of their varsity careers.
Second baseman McKenzie Writt led the team in batting average and has some pop in her bat, as well. First baseman Grace Paszek is nearly as effective at the plate.
On the mound, Olivia Paszek boasts a low earned-run average and struck out an even 100 batters in 2013. She will pitch at Franklin College next year.
Junior Gabi Terhune, who relies more on control and forcing ground balls, will fill the No. 2 slot in the rotation.
Three sophomores, who each got significant playing time as freshmen, will play a big part in the Cubs’ success this year. Shelby Taylor can fill in open slots in both the infield and outfield, Whitney Shapp will play shortstop, and Baleigh Potter will catch.
Coach Joe Paszek said the experienced players and the younger group will make for a balanced team.
“We will have a mix of both power and speed,” he said. “The seniors provide more power, and the youngsters bring speed and a little power, too.”
Greenwood Christian Academy
This will be the first year of varsity play for the Cougars. The average age of the team reflects that.
Of 16 players on the roster, 15 are either sophomores or freshman, with most having limited playing experience.
Head coach Dan Carmichael said he is happy to have two key positions already filled. Sophomores Isabella Robey and Brianna Lawrence will both pitch and catch, an important cornerstone for such a young team.
Beyond the battery, there are question marks aplenty.
Sophomore Hannah Peters, a standout on the Cougars’ basketball team, will bring leadership and athleticism. Freshmen Ashley Heldman, Tara Pennycuff and Abby Miller should play important roles as well.
Carmichael said the mystery will be where to plug in each player.
“We don’t know everyone’s position yet,” Carmichael said. “The challenge now is to get people in the right spots. This will be an instructional year to get the basics in. But I think we’ll fare OK.”
He added that he and the girls on the roster are up for the battles that come with building a program from scratch.
“I love the challenge of this situation. We’ll do our best with what we have and build from there.”
Last season was a milestone year for the Woodmen.
They defended their Mid-State conference title, captured their first Johnson County Tournament championship and ascended to No. 1 in the Class 4A poll, another first.
But a 1-0 loss to New Palestine in the sectional means there is work left to do for a roster that returns its top two pitchers and core of its lineup.
Senior Brittany Gray, the two-time Daily Journal Player of the Year, is the catalyst both on the mound and at the plate. The University of Georgia recruit has won 42 games during her first three years and batted an even .500 with seven home runs and 24 RBIs last year.
Gray has plenty of talent around her.
Sophomore Megan Overton developed into an elite pitcher last year and, with Gray, gives Greenwood one of the state’s best 1-2 combos.
At the plate, Greenwood will look to put the ball in play and then be aggressive on the basepaths. Seniors Rachel Overton and Davis Carter and junior Nataley Raker will join Gray at the top of the lineup.
Stephanie Senac, who begins her second year as head coach, said the Woodmen, ranked No. 11 in the preseason poll, are stacked with talent.
“We have a good solid core of returning girls who have been a big part of our success,” Senac said. “We have deep pitching, some great hitters and really good defense. We’ll be a team that people will have to come ready to compete against.”
As for that sectional loss, Senac said that, while it should be a motivator, this season should not be only about redemption in May.
“We want that bitter taste left from last year to drive them,” Senac said. “But we have a long way to go before (the postseason). We want the focus to be on this year and on our next game.”
The Braves lost five seniors off a team that lost to eventual Class 3A state champs Tri-West in the sectional title game.
Jessica Knight, the senior team captain, has taken on the role as leader of the young roster. Coach Gary Mitchell said Knight, a shortstop, has made the jump from complementary player to guide for her teammates.
“She’s really stepped up to fill the role as leader,” Mitchell said. “She has a good grasp of where we need to be. She’s a big piece of the puzzle. I’m extremely proud of her.”
Sophomore Sydney Williams led the Braves in hitting a year ago, batting nearly .500 in the process. She will play center field.
Other returnees include senior outfielder Annie Peters, and juniors Kaylee Satter (second base), Michaela Smith (catcher) and Cheyenne Moneymaker (third base).
A group of four players will contend for innings on the mound. Sophomore Zoey Gatton begins the season as the No. 1 starter. Freshmen Brittany Dugan, Dori Knight and Macy Ashley will all get looks to fill behind Gatton.
That group of freshmen could be a sign of things to come for Indian Creek. More than 30 players began tryouts this year, and Mitchell said the junior varsity group should be formidable this year.
“We have lots of new pieces,” Mitchell said. “I’ve been impressed with what I’ve seen in practice so far. But you don’t really know anything until you see it in game situations.
“I don’t doubt we’ll be good by the end of the season.”
The Warriors were very young a year ago. While they finished just 8-19, they pushed Greenwood in their sectional game, losing 3-1, and return all but two players from that squad.
Pitching should be a strength for Whiteland. Sophomore right-hander Danielle Munn had a terrific freshman year. Lefty Lauren Prohl, a junior, is a capable No. 2 starter.
Coach Scott Montgomery said Munn has the potential to be one of the state’s best pitchers before her career is over.
“I expect her to be even better this year,” Montgomery said. “She’s added a few miles per hour to her pitches and some movement as well. We’re hoping she gets a few more strikeouts this year, which will help our defense.”
Montgomery added that Munn’s effectiveness helps the Warriors’ offense as well.
“The offense can relax because they know she can hold the opponent to 1-2-3 runs and they don’t need to score 5-6 runs to win.”
The offense will be led by center fielder Monica Wagner. The junior led Whiteland in all offensive categories last year. Seniors Jacqueline Settles (shortstop), Darian Gourley (second base) and Kylie Bryson (right field), junior Andi Stewart (third base) and sophomore Hannah Upchurch (first base) will fill out the batting order.
Montgomery said the Warriors have shown real dedication during the winter.
“We’ve had the highest attendance at our offseason workouts since we’ve been here,” he said. “They’ve been buying in and doing everything they need to get better.
“We think we can be toward the top of the conference. But you have to be on your game night-by-night.”