Following United's four-year reign atop the Lincoln Trail Conference softball mountain, which culminated in the 2011 Class 1A state championship, the last two seasons belonged to West Central.|
However, after consecutive years of the Heat being on in the LTC race, including last year's perfect 17-0 run to the title, the conference's gold ring could be up for grabs this spring as several clubs look to vie for the chance to unseat West Central.
There is defending 1A regional champions Princeville and Sciota West Prairie, the latter topping LTC rivals Ridgewood and United to win its first postseason crown last May. There's also 1A regional finalist Stark County, led by its senior pitching ace Liz Hippen.
Then there is United itself (8-15 in '13), which looks to move back to the head of the Lincoln Trail behind a solid returning nucleus led by senior outfielder Brea Simkins (.409, 14 RBIs). Providing extra depth are juniors Maddie Ballard and Abbey French at third base and catcher, respectively. However, the Red Storm will have to replace plenty of offense, including the contributions of stalwart Michelle Ravel and Andi Hendrix.
That could open the door for Annawan-Wethersfield (14-13), which looks to recapture the form of its 2011 1A regional-title team and has the ingredients for greater success, with several of its players having contributed to Annawan's 1A state-championship girls' basketball squad.
"I'm a big believer in that,'' said first-year Titans' head coach and former assistant Brandon Christy. "If you're successful in one sport, you realize you can be successful in everything you do, and this group has had past success in softball. I do hope it (the state basketball title's effects) does carry over.''
As for the past three seasons, the Titans will be anchored by their senior battery of pitching ace Megan Foes (10-2, 117 strikeouts; .372, 27 RBIs) and catcher and record-setting slugger Celina VanHyfte (.676, 10 home runs, 31 RBIs). Such young guns as junior first baseman Kaila Dunfee and sophomore infielders Kailynn Osborne and Morgan VanHyfte (.377, 17 runs) add further depth.
"With quite a few familiar faces back, I'm hoping that experience pays off,'' said Christy. "Especially with our two top players back. I believe Megan is one of the top pitchers in the area, and Celina one of the best hitters''
"I think we have a shot (at the LTC title). I certainly don't see why not. I think it should be a good year for us.''
Also looking to enjoy a good year is Mercer County (14-10), which tied Princeville for third in the 2013 Lincoln Trail race and looks to build on that behind a nucleus of eight returning letterwinners led by senior catcher Jess Brooks (.479, 21 runs) and junior pitcher Bailey Swanson (8-4).
The Golden Eagles did lose some firepower in graduated outfielder Morgan Weeks, but coach Cassidy Staker thinks her club also can make its way in the crowded conference title mix.
"I definitely feel like we have the ability to compete, and pick up where we left off last year,'' said Staker, who also will be coaching her younger sister, senior first baseman Cayley Staker.
With Swanson hampered by injuries for roughly half of the 2013 campaign, Staker looks at keeping her healthy as a key to the Eagles' success, along with the development of younger hurlers Katie Weeks and Kylie Stineman.
"If we can keep our pitchers healthy, we'll have a good rotation,'' said the former Aledo Green Dragon standout. "Scoring runs will be another key. We had several games last year where we couldn't string enough hits together.''
Among LTC clubs looking to climb out of the second division is Ridgewood (3-21), where Spartans' coach and former Orion star Lyndsey Jackson has an equal mix of veteran leadership and up-and-coming youngsters, a group that includes junior catcher Samantha Roberts and senior pitcher Ashley Collins.
Jackson is hoping for a quick start to help her squad forget memories of the past two seasons, during which the Spartans went 5-48.
"They're definitely working hard and really wanting to have a better year, and I know they have the potential to do so,'' she said. "There's more knowledge of the game, and more experience overall, and these girls are very versatile and athletic. Our newcomers definitely bring a lot along with our five seniors.''
2014 LINCOLN TRAIL CONFERENCE SOFTBALL CAPSULES
Coach: Brandon Christy (1st year).
2013: 14-13 (9-8 LTC)
Returning letterwinners -- Srs.: Celina VanHyfte (C), Megan Foes (P), McKenzie Hoogerwerf (OF). Jrs.: Kaila Dunfee (1B), Rachael Peterson (2B). So.: Kailynn Osborne (3B), Morgan VanHyfte (SS), Brooke Pyle (OF).
Coach: Darrin Peterson (3rd year).
2013: 4-12 LTC
Returning letterwinners -- Srs.: Emma Corkill (P/1B), Lacy Peterson (C/1B), Melanie Edmonds (OF/P), Lindsay Franzoni (OF). Jrs.: Rachel VanDeVelde (OF), Allison Hagerty (C/3B). So.: Makayla Wood (SS), Ali Quick (3B), Madison Stewart (P/OF).
Mercer County Golden Eagles
Coach: Cassidy Staker (3rd year).
2013: 14-10 (12-6 LTC)
Returning letterwinners -- Srs.: Jess Brooks (C), Kristin Heath (CF), Kate Baugher (3B), Cayley Staker (1B), Michaela Baker (2B). Jrs.: Hannah Terrill (LF), Bailey Swanson (P/SS). So.: Katie Weeks (P/OF).
Newcomers -- Sr.: Michaela Klingaman (OF). So.: Hannah Callahan (SS/OF), Carli Skiles (IF). Fr.: Alex Johnson (SS), Kylie Stineman (P).
Coach: Lyndsey Jackson (2nd year; six combined seasons with Ridgewood).
2013: 3-21 (1-16 LTC)
Returning letterwinners -- Srs.: Ashley Collins (P/IF), Morgan Green (SS/OF), Addison Barman (IF), Sabrina Medley (OF), Mary Koby (Utility). Jr.: Samantha Roberts (C/OF).
Newcomers -- So.: Sammi Casteel (OF/IF), Morgan Boone (P/OF). Fr.: Emily Kenney (OF/IF), Mollie Shannon (C/Utility), Marcie Shannon (P/Utility).
United Red Storm
Coach: Hannah Baker (2nd year).
2013: 8-15 (6-11 LTC)
Returning letterwinners -- Sr.: Brea Simkins (OF). Jrs.: Maddie Ballard (3B), Abbey French (C), MyKelti Mann (P). So.: Natalie Johnson (2B), Lauren Sperry (Utility).
Milan, IL Details
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