By NEIL PIERSON
With six starters returning to a team that went 20-8 last season, you'd think expectations for the Medical Lake softball team would be through the roof.
That's not the case.
Head coach John Higgins, who announced his retirement last spring but ended up returning for season No. 15 at the Lady Cardinals' helm, still thinks he has a great team. But with the regular season starting this week, he's not ready to give his squad a free pass into the 2A state tournament.
“I think the potential is there for another possible run at state,” Higgins said. “There's a ton of freshmen and sophomores, which looks good down the road, especially in the pitching department.”
The coach knew he'd be answering a major question mark after losing Great Northern League MVP and All-State pitcher Caitlin Smith. Pitching depth isn't a problem in 2007, as the Lady Cards have four arms to rely on, but none are proven winners at the varsity level.
Higgins plans for a rotation with all four pitchers. Sophomore transfer Liz Shoben and freshman Gabrielle Daily appear to be the most promising hurlers, with freshman Emily Paulson and senior Jessica Johnson also expected to contribute. Freshman Savannah Raczykowski and sophomore Jessica Herkel could also get spot duties, though Higgins said they'll play junior varsity most of the time.
“I'm trying to make sure all these gals get equal playing time and get them ready for the future,” Higgins said.
Behind the plate, the Lady Cards appear set for the next three years. Sophomore Carey Campbell was one of the league's leading hitters last year, and will be counted upon as a major run producer in the middle of the lineup.
Gabrielle Daily starts the season at first base, but only until big sister Richelle Daily returns from an ankle injury sustained during basketball season. Another returning senior, Courtney Walle, starts at third base and is perhaps the team's best defensive player.
The defense up the middle is unproven after shortstop Rachel Maddox and second baseman Annie Caldwell graduated. Sophomore Niki Anderson makes her varsity debut at second, while Higgins shifts junior Liz Caldwell from the outfield to short.
“She's not flashy, but she's steady,” Higgins said of Caldwell.
Sophomore Chelsea Hardenbrook and junior Carly Dorshorst return to anchor the outfield, with sophomore Liz Walker joining the fray. While Dorshorst is a defensive specialist, Hardenbrook will be the Lady Cards' offensive catalyst in the lead-off spot and Walker could provide some occasional pop from anywhere in the order.
The Lady Cards do have some home run capabilities, but speed is their true strength. Expect to see plenty of hit-and-run plays and straight steals throughout the season as ML tries to pressure opposing defenses.
“I think we're going to have to force the issue because of the youth we've got,” Higgins said.
ML opened the regular season last Saturday with a non-league doubleheader at Freeman. The host Scotties swept the games, 6-5 and 16-3 in six innings.
Shoben took the loss in the opener, allowing two runs in three innings. The Lady Cards managed five hits but couldn't capitalize further on five Freeman errors. In the nightcap, the Scotties jumped on Johnson and took an 8-0 lead after three innings. ML committed seven errors and picked up only two hits.
It was a different story Monday afternoon when the team returned home to face Reardan. Shoben struck out five in the first two innings and got the win, 20-1 in four innings. Campbell had a pair of hits, including a two-run double in the second inning, to lead the offensive attack. Caldwell also had two hits and ML invoked the mercy rule with 14 runs in the fourth inning.
Higgins thinks the GNL could be more balanced this season, though defending champion Colville is still the team to beat. With six girls who've tasted state competition coming back, it's not a stretch for the Lady Cardinals to be playing in Wenatchee again on Memorial Day weekend.
“I'm pretty excited about this bunch of kids,” Higgins said. “They listen well, they work hard and they're just a good bunch of girls to be around.”
Neil Pierson can be reached at email@example.com