By Brad Fauber
STRASBURG -- Nikki Killen's role on Strasburg's softball team may be as important as ever this season.
The Rams lost most of their pitching depth from a season ago due to graduation and a transfer, and Strasburg's lone returning pitcher with any significant varsity experience -- sophomore Carey Scott -- is battling an injury to her throwing shoulder and may not be available for the start of the season.
That potentially leaves junior Megan Emswiler -- who didn't play softball last season -- as the only viable option in the pitching circle for the Rams to start the 2014 season. And that's where Killen's experience holds a lot of its value.
Killen, a junior and a two-year varsity starter who will play catcher once again for the Rams, expects to play a huge part in guiding Strasburg's young pitching staff this season.
"We're still getting the hang of things," Killen said after a recent practice inside the gymnasium at Signal Knob Middle School. "I just basically need to give them confidence to make sure they know they can do it and don't get down on themselves to where they think they can't do it anymore. ... I feel like I'm more of a confidence boost to get them to make sure they keep doing it and keep working at it."
Killen has plenty of practice when it comes to handling the Rams' pitchers. Last season, Strasburg head coach Suzanne Mathias tasked Killen with the responsibility of calling pitches from behind the plate.
Killen caught on quickly, and Mathias said the junior will carry that same responsibility into this season.
"She'll run the field," Mathias said. "I'm confident in her calling her own pitches and all that stuff. I did that last year as a learning experience for her and she did pretty good with it. We talked about some things that needed to change with it then and once we can get outside and learn some stuff like that, then we'll worry about that, get more in depth."
If there is one thing that could hinder the development of that rapport between Killen and the pitching staff, it's the weather. The string of freezing temperatures, snowfall and ice storms that has plagued the area in recent weeks has forced most teams -- Strasburg included -- to practice indoors.
Though much of Strasburg's practice time has been confined to the middle school gymnasium, Mathias isn't overly concerned about the Rams' lack of on-field preparation.
"Everybody's in the same boat, so that's the nice thing," Mathias said.
Scott's shoulder is also a concern for Strasburg, which only has 11 players on its roster, although Scott does have the benefit of already having some varsity pitching experience and she should be able to step right into the starting pitching role when healthy.
Scott has also worked in tandem with Killen in the past, so the pitcher-catcher connection between the two has already been formed.
"We work pretty good together," Scott said. "We communicate a lot, and if I'm doing something wrong she talks to me and if she's doing something wrong I talk to her. We usually just work it out. We have a pretty good relationship."
Killen will also play a pivotal role for the Rams with a bat in her hands. Mathias said she expects the junior to hit either third or fourth in the lineup this season, and Mathias praised Killen's versatility in the batter's box.
Last season, Killen hit .364 with two home runs and 13 RBIs for the Rams (8-13). She also added nine doubles and 21 runs scored, and she was a first-team all-Bull Run District selection.
Killen said she's focused on taking a stronger mental approach at the plate this season based on some feedback she received from attending several college softball camps over the summer.
"What I've been trying to do is make a routine that sticks and that's good for me, and make sure my confidence level stays up, because if I don't have confidence, I don't have anything," Killen said.
"My main thing to work on this year is to have a positive going into the at-bat. No matter if I strike out, whatever, I want to have a positive."
In addition to Killen and Scott, Strasburg brings back five other players from last season's team, as seniors Marissa Doman, Mikala Alsberry and Jymi Rudolph, junior Emily Melnikoff and sophomore Lexi Schlag all return.
Strasburg went over a list of season goals last Friday, and earning its first winning season since 2009 was at the very top.
"The main thing is that we want to have a winning season ... and we'd like to win our Ram Classic this year, because we haven't done that in a while," Killen said. "Then we would like to beat some of those teams that we haven't beaten in a long time, like Madison [County] and Clarke [County] and Central. Another one is stay positive and healthy, because we only have 11 players this year. So that's going to be rough."
Contact sports writer Brad Fauber at 540-465-5137 ext. 184, or email@example.com. Follow on Twitter @BradFauberNVD