Posted Online: March 18, 2013, 6:03 pm

Rockets look to challenge WCC North softball race

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By Terry Duckett,

More photos from this shoot
Photo: Paul Colletti
Sherrard infielder Riley Strandgard celebrates in the dugout during last May's Class 2A state tournament in East Peoria. Strandgard is one of seven returning letterwinners for the Tigers, who placed fourth in the state last year.
Without question, the Sherrard Tigers have to be the team to beat in the 2013 West Central Conference's North Division softball title race.

However, the Rockridge Rockets hope to be the ones sitting atop the WCC North standings in what will be the final conference run for Rockridge, Sherrard and fellow rival Orion before departing for the Three Rivers Conference.

"We play Sherrard on Apr. 6, and again two days later. Those two games are going to be key in the conference race," second-year Rockridge coach Jason Lingle said. "It's been awhile since we've been competitive with Sherrard, but I think we'll be there with them. We believe this is the year."

Led by the senior nucleus of infielders Kaitlyn Robison (.495, 28 RBIs) and Genna Flaherty (.400, 29 RBIs), the Rockets (18-14 in 2012) have an equally solid corps of underclassmen led by the battery of pitcher Jenna Carroll and catcher Gabe Mueller (.442, 10 doubles, 31 RBIs).

"This team is extremely talented and working hard, and they expect to have a good season,'' said Lingle. "We're young but experienced. These kids have played a lot of softball, and our two senior leaders are making a huge difference. I couldn't be more pleased with our captains (Robison and Flaherty)."

Coming off a 29-7 finish and a Class 2A fourth-place trophy, the Tigers aren't about to make life any easier for the Rockets, however.

Although graduation stripped Sherrard of all but seven members from last year, and a change at the top has Mike DeLoose stepping in for Bob Phelps as head coach, the reigning WCC North champions still have a formidable group to work with this spring.

The Tigers return not only two solid pitchers in senior Ashlynn Hawotte and sophomore Rachel Winston but two of the area's premier hitters in senior center fielder Alex Ward (.374, 29 RBIs, 43 runs) and junior shortstop Riley Strandgard (.412, 12 home runs, 49 RBIs), both 2A All-State selections.

"We've still got a good core returning along with the kids we have coming up," said DeLoose. "We feel like we're reloading. We had a fantastic team in 2012, but we've still got a lot of good players back, like Riley and Alex. We'll be strong in pitching and defense, and we'll teach some new things to add to our offensive weapons."

DeLoose also acknowledged the threat Rockridge could pose to the Tigers' dominance.

"They've got a lot of good athletes back," he said. "... But we've done so well, we want to continue the tradition here at Sherrard."

Orion (18-14) also took a graduation hit, losing pitching ace Ashlee Amador and top hitters Kylee Peterson and Emily McVietty, but like their traditional rivals, the Chargers also return a strong nucleus.

The senior duo of shortstop/pitcher and three-year starter Abby Taets (.418; 3-1 pitching mark) and first baseman/outfielder Kylie Smutzer anchor a group of 11 returning letterwinners for Orion coach Shelly Hutton.

"Our two seniors (Taets and Smutzer) provide us with great leadership," she said, "but we will be untested on the mound after graduating Ashlee. (Sophomore) Katie Conway and (junior) Bailey Eastin will fill out the rotation with Abby. We do feel we are in pretty good shape defensively, and we should have a good (offensive) mix of speed and power."

Meantime, Monmouth-Roseville hopes to make inroads in the WCC North after struggling to a 6-22 finish in 2012. "We've come up a bit in each of the four years I've been here, just not as fast as I'd like to see," said Titans' coach Tom Casteel.

West Central North softball preview capsule

Monmouth-Roseville Titans
Tom Casteel (4th year)
2012: 6-22 (1-9 WCC North); lost 11-1 to Mercer County in Class 2A regional quarterfinal
Returning letterwinners: Srs.: Jasmine Padilla (OF), Sarah Thompson (OF), Mackenzie Whiteside (IF/C). Jrs.: Jenna Miller (P), Amanda Robinson (C), Chloe Larson (2B), Brittany Parkins (SS).
Newcomers: Jr.: Marissa Wilson (OF). Soph.: Kira Damewood (P), Carlyn Snell (IF/P), Trisha Haskins (IF). Fr.: Courtney Jones (3B), Grace Ferguson (IF).

Orion Chargers
Shelly Hutton (13th year)
2012: 18-14 (5-5 WCC North); lost 4-3 to Payson Seymour in the Class 1A sectional semifinal
Returning letterwinners: Srs.: Abby Taets (SS/P), Kylie Smutzer (1B/OF). Jrs.: Haley Anderson (1B/Utility), Bailey Eastin (2B/OF), Angie Minas (OF), Lauren Kahley (3B/Utility), Madison Weiss (2B). Soph.: Katie Conway (P/SS), Bradlee Fair (C), Breanna Moore (OF), Zoe Price (OF).
Newcomers: Jr.: Kaili Schorr (3B/Utility). Soph.: Santana Terronez (OF). Fr.: Ashton Lee (3B), Mackenzie Smith (SS), Annie Hanson (C), India Price (P/1B), Maddie Anderson (2B/OF).

Rockridge Rockets
Jason Lingle (2nd year)
2012: 18-14 (7-3 WCC North); lost 12-8 to Alleman in the Class 2A regional semifinals
Returning letterwinners: Srs.: Kaitlyn Robison (SS), Genna Flaherty (3B). Jrs.: Jenna Carroll (P/OF), Gabe Mueller (C/Utility), Bri Olson (P/2B). Soph.: Callie Gosney (OF/C), Michaela Stoneking (1B).
Newcomers: Jrs.: Abby Matlick (OF), Katrina Vroman (Utility). Soph.: Samantha Roth (SS/C), Jordan Lloyd (OF). Fr.: Payah Hayes (P), Lexi DeKeyrel (P/OF), Erin Lingle (OF/2B).

Sherrard Tigers
Mike DeLoose (1st year)
2012: 29-7 (10-0 WCC North, 1st place); lost 5-2 (9 innings) to St. Joseph-Ogden in Class 2A third-place game.
Returning letterwinners: Srs.: Alex Ward (OF), Ashlynn Hawotte (P/1B/OF), Carly Adams (OF). Jrs.: Riley Strandgard (SS), Tori Redpath (2B). Soph.: Rachel Winston (P), Libby Frye (C).
Newcomers: Jrs.: Kodee Mital (C), Anna Willems (OF), Peyton Jones (3B). Soph.: Jordan Hutton (3B), Jaryn Kinder (1B), Macy Hutchinson (P/2B/OF), Alyssa Bradley (OF).