Cheney softball head coach Gary Blake has one question about his team heading into the 2013 season.
How does one replace six seniors, all starters, who were a big part of Cheney’s successful run over the past three years? Those seniors, Gracie Pitts, Mandy McDowell, Sierra Vijarro, Nicole Lane, Samantha Silvieus and Kieona Williams combined for a 48-27 record and two trips to the 2A state tournament.
Pitts, McDowell, Vijarro and Lane were first-team All-Great Northern League in 2012, with Silvieus and Williams second-team selections. Lane and McDowell got the lion’s share of mound time over that stretch as Cheney’s No. 1 and 2 pitchers and combined with Pitts to lead Cheney in hitting as well, Lane winning team batting honors in 2009, McDowell in 2010 and Pitts the last two seasons.
Big shoes to fill, but Blake isn’t losing too much sleep figuring out how to do it.
“I’ve got a good group back this year,” the nine-year Lady Hawks veteran said. “And like any fastpitch softball situation it all depends on how your pitching comes along.”
The Lady Hawks return seven varsity members, and are fortunate in a weird sort of way because, unlike some other GNL schools, they have some experienced arms returning. Injuries kept Lane and McDowell on the sidelines for several weeks last season, and while unfortunate for them, it allowed sophomore Bailey Towey and freshman Megan McDowell the opportunity to earn valuable innings on the mound.
Both did fairly well, keeping Cheney in the playoff picture, and return for their junior and sophomore seasons, Towey as a two-year varsity member, with sophomore Julia Boyd also factoring into the rotation after getting a lot of innings at junior varsity. Defensively the Lady Hawks return most of their starting infield, with two-year veteran Amy Anderson (junior) at first, Towey at second when McDowell’s on the mound and three-year veteran Katie Bethel (senior) at short, moving to second when Towey pitches.
Pitts’ departure leaves a hole at third, with McDowell a possibility at the hot corner along with returning junior Whitney LaValley – also getting innings at second – along with 2012 JV player Cheyenne Hanson (sophomore).
There’s also a hole in the outfield where Vijarro was a staple in center for four years and Williams in left for three. Seven Lady Hawks are listed on the roster at outfield: LaValley, Towey, Hanson, Boyd, returning varsity Cheyenne Wright (sophomore) and JV players Adrianna Suiter (sophomore) and Abbie Waldon (freshman).
Blake hopes several younger players step up and grab an outfield slot, but if not, he has the flexibility to move veterans like Towey and LaValley, along with natural-athlete Anderson, out and plug the younger players into the infield.
Offensively the Lady Hawks also have some question marks, something not unusual this time of year since weather keeps most teams indoors hitting off tees. Cheney also took a hit by losing the Fisher Building gym, no longer usable as an athletic facility, leading to increased competition for remaining space.
Blake said this actually turned out to be a blessing as the Lady Hawks now get use of half of the high school gym along with the batting cages in the wrestling room upstairs.
“We haven’t had that before,” he said. “We should probably see some improved hitting in the first part of the season.”
The only thing Blake is certain of is the team has a bit more speed this year and that the heart of the Lady Hawks order, three, four and five hitters, will be occupied by Anderson, Bethel and likely McDowell. Boyd can drive the ball, and has the quickness to replace Silvieus at lead off if she can learn to be more of a slap hitter.
“We are a young team this year,” Blake said. “It’ll take a while to gel.”
If that’s true with Cheney it’s also true with other teams around the league, especially with pitching.
“The five pitchers who dominated the league the last couple of years are all gone,” Blake said.
West Valley graduated their No. 1 and 2 starters, Kellie Peckham and Brooklyn Robinson while East Valley lost Hunter Anderson and Colville, up from 1A with an appearance at last year’s state tournament, said good-bye to its No. 1, Jolene Rogers. Blake said West Valley and Colville have arms waiting in the wings, and both are good hitting clubs that should have success while their pitching comes along.
As for the rest of the league, Clarkston returns seven seniors from last year’s regional playoff team, while Blake expects Deer Park to be improved, with East Valley also looking for pitching and Pullman being somewhat of an unknown. With the addition of Colville, the GNL got much more competitive.
“Like I say, it’ll depend on who the strong pitchers turn out to be,” Blake said. “Those teams are going to do well.”
John McCallum can be reached at email@example.com.