By Brian Eller - email@example.com
FRONT ROYAL -- It doesn't matter what she throws. Nicole King can't fool Taylor Bass.
Whether it's a quick fastball, a teasing curveball or an always tricky screwball, Bass can read where the pitch is going to land.
Fortunately for King, she won't have to worry about Bass knocking her pitches out of the park. After all, the two Warren County sophomores are teammates, and, as one of the top pitcher-catcher duos in the area, have the Wildcats primed for a successful season.
"Me and Nicole have been playing together for a couple of years now," Bass said, "so I know if it's a curveball where it's going to land. If it's a screwball I know where it's going to go. We threw in a new pitch this season that we're going to use a lot, but we've been working together so much we have that chemistry."
That's dangerous news for opponents this season, as both King and Bass are coming off spectacular freshman campaigns. As the team's leading pitcher, King led Warren County to an 11-11 record last year, just one season after a dismal 0-20 record. King tossed 147 innings, putting up an ERA of 2.43 and setting a school single-season record with 230 strikeouts.
"The big thing in softball is pitching is such an important role," coach Justin Stock said. "She's grown up and progressed a little bit, so I think she's going to play a big role in our development. Being young, we're going to have to play small-ball, but we think she'll be able to keep the teams down to one or two runs."
King said her goals for this season are to lower her ERA and cut down on the number of walks she issues each game. And while much of that depends on the arm of King, a lot relies on Bass, who will suit up behind the plate for the Wildcats. Last season Bass was a dual threat, hitting for both average and power. She batted .388 last season while hitting five home runs and stealing 14 bases.
But another of Bass' contributions isn't measured by any statistic. It's the relationship she has built with King since the two were in middle school that has gelled into a formidable advantage against opposing hitters.
"We work together a lot," King said. "When I practice pitching she catches me, so we're good together. She knows my spins and snaps, and I help her with a lot of that, too."
And while King and Bass are leading the youth movement at Warren County, maybe the bigger story is a Wildcats program that has taken leaps and bounds over the last few years. Two seasons ago Warren County went winless, then followed that up by reaching the .500 mark last year. This season, Stock looks to get over the .500 mark, and with a solid core of young players keep moving forward with the program.
"Certainly last year was a big turnaround for us, going .500," Stock said. "We have seven returning starters, so I think the basis is there. We still have a lot of young kids, but the core of kids that were there last year is going to be back."
With reigning player of the year Brea Hinegardner back, the Falcons will look to be one of the area's top teams again this season. Hinegardner led the team in several offensive categories, hitting .594 with 12 doubles and 21 runs. The senior will also anchor the Falcons' pitching staff, which will have the luxury of pitching around an infield that returns four of its five starters from last season.
"From what I've seen so far, the four seniors, I think, feel pretty confident," coach Jill Yew said. "I think they're going to step up and they came to the coaches about the expectations and what we feel we should be able to accomplish this year, so we've got a lot of returning players and we should be pretty successful this season."
Last season Clarke County featured one of the area's most powerful lineups, with lethal hitters Brianna Smith, Amy Hagerdon and Jordan Wolford each batting over .400. This year Hagerdon is back for the Eagles, and will either start at shortstop or do the catching for a young pitching staff that features freshmen Sam Herndon and Helen Good.
"We return six players from last year, but not a lot of starters," coach Susan Grubbs said. "At pitcher we've got two freshman pitchers, Herndon and Good, who will hopefully do some good things for us. There's still a question as to who will catch for us. It could be Hagerdon to catcher, but we've got a strong infield and the girls we've brought up are very young, but I wouldn't have brought them up if I didn't think they could handle playing on varsity."
While several other teams have question marks in the pitching department, the Judges can take some comfort in knowing their top hurler from last season is back. Chelsea Hamric returns to the circle for Handley after reaching 19 decisions and recording a 2.09 ERA. She'll have to be stingy against hitters to give the Judges their best chance at winning, with just two other starters returning from last year.
"[What makes her so effective] is she can throw six pitches," coach Tim Mondell said. "Her No. 1 pitch depends on who we're playing. You really have to study hitters because it's such a game-to-game thing. We'll need her because we're a bit challenged offensively, too. We didn't have a JV program last year, so we carried some younger players along with us."
Like most teams in the district, the Colonels' success relies on their revamped pitching staff, featuring a rotation that has a total experience of two varsity games. Whitney Dennis will lead the staff as the team's likely starting catcher, which will give the pitchers a chance to improve their skills in the circle.
"I've got some good people coming in," coach Ted McDaniel said. "The only problem is, between them they've only started two varsity games, so they're inexperienced. But they've pitched some outside of high school ball, so we think they'll come up to speed quickly."
The Pioneers return experience both at the plate and in the pitcher's circle this season. Kaitlyn Hendershot will look to lead the team on the offensive side after hitting .381 last season. Meanwhile, Amber Wells, who had 44 strikeouts in 78 innings last year, will anchor the pitching staff.
"Amber is back as usual and solid as usual," coach Michelle Long said. "We'll go as far as her arm can take us. She's got leadership, she's got talent, and she's got a love of the game. And that really blends in with everyone else. It helps get everybody pumped up."
Kourtney Paige and Amanda Lutz highlight a Sherando team that will have to replace some key athletes from last year's team. Paige and Lutz were both forces at the plate for the Warriors, hitting .446 and .403, respectively. Meanwhile, the departures of Brittany Larrick and pitcher Nicole Musser will likely see the emergence of some of the younger players on Sherando's squad.
The Hawks will feature one of the area's most dangerous teams, as they return eight lettermen including the entire starting infield from last season. Senior captain Kaitlin Robinson will likely be one of the offensive leaders on the team, while junior Casey Henry will split time between first base and in the pitcher's circle. Freshman Sara Beamer joins the Hawks' rotation this season as well. Beamer was 10-0 last season throwing as a member of Skyline's junior varsity squad, and coach Richard Armstrong hopes to see big things from the first-year player.
"Well, she does play travel ball and she's pitched a good bit there, so she's got pretty good mound presence," he said. "She struggles a little bit sometimes getting ahead in the count, which we've been working on and we'll continue to work on that. But so far it seems like she's ready to step out there and see if she can get it done."
Junior Sami Somers returns as the top pitcher for the Generals, and it'll be up to her to help lead a young squad this season. With varsity experience in the pitcher's circle under her belt from 2009, Somers will be the anchor of a staff that features two talented sophomores in Marisa Moomaw and Cassie Conley. As far as the lineup, coach Michael Hunt admits this is one of the youngest teams he's had in recent memory, but also one of the most talented.
"I've already told this group that this will be the group that starts moving us ahead," Hunt said. "I think they were pleased by that. We're kind of in a transition stage with the program, but our pitching and fielding have improved and we're going to have some depth at different positions."
When senior Jaclyn Ayers suffered a season-ending injury during the Rams' basketball season, Strasburg's softball team took a huge blow. Ayers was one of the top players on last season's squad, hitting .519 and giving the Rams a formidable lineup. Despite her absence in the lineup, Strasburg still features a dangerous team.
Jaclyn's younger sister Katlyn Ayers will be called upon to pitch for the Rams, and coach Suzanne Mathias feels this team will be competitive, even with the elder Ayers sidelined with an injury.
"I think we're going to be competitive," Mathias said. "We just have to get on the field and see some action to be able to finalize some people in different positions and work on our hitting. I think we'll be competitive, but those are the things we need to work on."