The Delaware Hayes softball team accomplished more in one season than it had ever before in its history, including a school-record in wins (23) and a perfect regular season last spring.
But, it all came to a crashing halt when the top-seeded Pacers dropped a 4-3 decision to 26th-seeded Olentangy Liberty in the biggest upset since the postseason tournament began seeding all of the schools in 2013.
“It wasn’t that we were overlooking them,” Pacers coach Mark Thomas said. “They came out fast. We fought back and we fought back … we had runners in scoring position in the last three innings and just couldn’t get a key hit.
“All year we had the key home run … everything was rolling our way. It was weird. I’m not taking anything away from (Coach Bob Lee’s Liberty) team. He had them ready and hungry. We were ready, but a little shocked they came up on us in the first inning and took the lead.”
Liberty of all teams.
The Patriots stood in the way of Delaware’s district title glory in 2014 and 2015.
“(We) were very shocked and very sad that the senior class had to leave like that,” Thomas said. “We were thinking we’re going to that district championship game, finally win a district championship and do some damage in regionals and make it to Akron. Why wouldn’t we? We were there … we had a great team and we were rolling.
“I’m not going to lie — it still hurts,” Thomas added. “It’s going to hurt for a while.”
Thomas and the Pacers face a similar situation this season that Liberty faced last year with almost everybody back but the one in the circle.
Delaware has been seeded eighth or higher every year since 2011 — a remarkable run. Thomas had the services of two all-state pitchers — first Mikayla Cooper and most recently Madi Huck, who won All-Ohio Player of the Year in her senior season last year.
“We had Huck for four years and had Cooper prior to that, so the last eight years we really didn’t have to worry about pitching,” Thomas said. “(Huck), in the main categories, left here No. 1 in everything.”
But the Pacers embark on a season without a true No. 1 pitcher. Freshman Haley Osbourne is the likely leader in the clubhouse to become the ace when the season starts.
Osbourne, the younger sister of former Pacer Jordan Osbourne, has battled it out with Jillian Haley (junior), Claire Bowman (sophomore) and fellow freshman Katie Fleshman. Each will see time in the circle this season.
“Pitching-wise, we’re going to be young in both ways … young as in no quality starts at the varsity level and just young grade-wise,” Thomas said. “There are four players fighting for two spots on the varsity team. That’s going to be a change.”
Huck is one of five seniors the Pacers are replacing. Kaily Schuette, Caylin Morstadt, Leah Milligan and Mackenzie Stonebraker all played big roles on last year’s squad.
“We’ve been working extra hard this offseason … just because of what we lost last year,” Thomas said. “We lost talent – I think 29 of the 36 home runs we hit came from the senior class. We’ve just been concentrating – working our tails off for communication, leadership and the small things.”
The Pacers are young, but experienced. Utility player Alysa Durbin has the distinction of being the only senior on the squad.
So, Thomas is looking for leadership. He has it in junior catcher Amaia Daniel – a two-year starter.
“She is the one that’s stepping up to be that leader and is being that leader right now,” Thomas said. “Her leadership that she gained from Huck is huge … just all-around.”
Daniel has committed to play at Ball State and might see time at shortstop this season as well as behind the plate.
Juniors Mallory Stonebraker (first base/designated player), Rachael Bourget (outfielder), Ally James (third base), Audrey Hannahs (outfielder) and Megan Shearer (outfielder) and sophomores Chloe Barton (shortstop) and Lexi Mattix (second base) are all either returning starters or saw significant time in the last campaign.
“We have some sophomores in the starting lineup and some juniors, but they’ve never had that leadership role,” Thomas said. “But, I’m happy with what we have coming back.”
Eleven of the 12 players on the BW varsity roster are juniors or seniors, including 10 returning letterwinners, making the Golden Eagles primed for a run at an OCC-Capital title.
“We’re very senior-led — we have seven seniors on the roster this year,” Golden Eagles coach Jeff Hatfield said. “We’ve got a lot of experience coming back. Our No. 1 goal is to win the league in our new division and also we want to win a district title this year.”
Seniors Jessica Coletta (catcher), Katie Neff (right field), Taryn Hammond (third base) and Kasey Becker (first base/second base) are back for their last go-around.
Juniors Meredith Thomas (shortstop), Emma Schwinne (second base), Stacey Walters (left field/pitcher) and Alexyss Bullock (first base) and sophomore Jocelyn Lucas (centerfield) also return.
“I’m excited about where we’re at so far and I’m excited about the leadership that we have,” Hatfield said.
Senior Alex Thomas (pitcher), who spent her first three seasons at Newark Catholic, joins sister Meredith on the squad. She was on the first team of the Licking County League’s Cardinal Division last season and was honorable mention All-State as a freshman.
“(Alex Thomas and Walters) will both share time in the circle,” Hatfield. “(Alex Thomas) is very athletic and she brings a lot of leadership and a lot of experience to the table for us.”
Seniors Bella Holderby (utility) and Mariah Chattos (utility) will provide the Eagles with depth.
The Barons have a nice mixture of youth and experience with five seniors and five freshmen and sophomores.
The youth part of that equation has third-year coach Christine Crooks excited about the future.
“I bet you in three years, Buckeye Valley will be playing for states,” she said. “That’s how confident I am in these younger players. That’s not being cocky … I think that’s going to happen.”
As for this year, Alyssa Thurston and Nicole Peak — a senior transfer from Westerville Central — captain the squad. Peak has committed to play at Ohio Wesleyan.
“It’s a good group,” Crooks said. “I think the biggest thing for us is to make sure we don’t peak too soon. So, we’re trying to build from the inside-out. I’m hoping (our captains) will step up and really lead the team.”
Fellow seniors Halie Coburn (second base), Logan Hatcher (third base) and Taylor Jenkins (catcher) are back to lead the squad.
Senior Allison Fathbruckner suffered a torn ACL and will miss the season. The Ohio Dominican commit will pitch in as the team’s manager.
Juniors Lisa Leienberger (outfield/first base) and Morgan Tigges (catcher) and sophomores Paige Milhon (first base) and Olivia Schick (right field/second base) also provide experience for the Barons.
The biggest question mark facing BV this season is how the squad will replace Kasey Morris in the circle? Crooks will look to Peak, Schick and freshman Riley George.
Ashlea Kehl (outfield) and Cora Hollingsworth (shortstop) are freshmen Crooks thinks will contribute this season. Crooks has Hollingsworth penciled in as the starting shortstop.
Coach Tom Morgan hopes his experienced squad can contend for another district championship this spring.
Morgan took over in 2015 after being an assistant on the 2014 team that won a Division IV district title.
His 2016 squad finished 10-9 and 4-2 in the Mid-Ohio Christian Athletic League and won a Division IV first-round tournament game over Wellington before falling in the second round to top-seeded Danville.
DCS has seven coming back, including four returning seniors.
“We’d like to contend for the MOCAL title this year,” Morgan said. “We’re going to have to get through Granville Christian to do that.”
Senior Madie Morgan (pitcher) led DCS both in the circle and at the plate last season, posting seven of the team’s 10 wins and team-highs in batting average (.500) and RBI (23).
Seniors Madisen Wallace (center field), Hope Clark (first base/outfield) and Caitlyn Ruminski (catcher) return for one last go-around. Julia Rogers (outfield), also a senior, joins the varsity team this season.
Juniors Kara Haskins (third base/pitcher) and Emily Parrish (shortstop/pitcher) and sophomore Haileigh Darnell (second base) also return.
Sophomore Zoe Twigg (outfield) and freshmen Cassidy Justice (first base), Michelle Flick (second base/outfield) and Annie Wallace (third base/outfield) will gain varsity experience for the first time.
“I’m a fundamentals guy when it comes to softball,” Morgan said. “Especially with five first-year players – we’ve spent a lot of time working on it. My goal for this season is to play solid, fundamental softball.”
Olentangy returns seven letterwinners off a squad that finished 14-13 last season, and will have to find innings to replace departed senior pitchers Logan Sutton and Alyssa Boyd and its biggest offensive threat Ashley Post.
Junior Sophie Low is back after sharing time with the duo in the circle last season. She will be joined by freshman Payton Cox.
“This is probably one of the deepest rosters we’ve had since 2012-13,” coach Alan Tharpe said. “We have a 15-player roster this season and any of them can produce on the field and at the plate.”
Tharpe, who enters his fifth season, thinks his squad will improve on that mark thanks to the leadership of his four seniors — Kristen Bartel (catcher/third base), Sydney Hall (outfield), Emma Spinner (outfield), Sydney Wagner (shortstop).
“(Wagner) is a solid offensive threat and a great leader,” Tharpe said. “Kristen Bartel will be half of the battery most of the season and may play some (third base). There shouldn’t be many steals on her arm. She’s a good catcher and a field general. (Hall and Spinner) have contributed to the leadership over the winter and should have a great year.”
Olentangy exited the tournament without a win for the first time since 2008 after back-to-back appearances in the district semifinal round. But, before it can try and make up for that, it has to compete with sister-schools Liberty and Orange and the three Westerville schools in the new OCC-Buckeye.
The Patriots hope to parlay their shocking upset over top-seeded Delaware in last year’s tournament into momentum this season.
“I think it gave them confidence … both that win and the win against Grove City (in the second round),” Liberty coach Bob Lee said. “It gave them confidence for the summer … especially our pitcher (Katelyn Wilhelm) and our catcher (Arica Flaugher). I think it gave our kids some confidence for this year, too.”
The battery tandem of Wilhelm and Flaugher are now sophomores. Wilhelm held the powerful Pacers to three runs over seven innings in the district semifinal win. Flaugher hit a key first-inning home run.
“(Wilhelm) had tremendous control that night,” Lee said. “We just busted them inside all night long. They were such big power hitters — that was our game plan — and credit to our pitcher (Wilhelm) and our catcher (Flaugher) … they didn’t miss many spots.”
Liberty lost four seniors off of that squad, including Miranda Noday (second base), Kaylin Lee (first base), Rylee Kashmiry (center field) and Kylie Reed (third base) all mainstays in the program for the past four seasons.
Still, there’s experience returning, namely shortstop Kennedy Kashmiry, who has been in the lineup since her freshman year. The second baseman was second team All-OCC last season.
Juniors Lillee LaRosa (right field) and Natalie Battaglia (left field) and sophomores Sydney Lane (first base/catcher), Lindsay Aninao (third base/catcher) and Sammy Leonhardt (second base) all gained valuable experience last season.
“We have six sophomores that have starting experience,” Lee said. “I expect that to be a big advantage.”
And the pitching staff, led by Wilhelm and Marissa McPhail (junior) gained a year of experience. Freshman Kaitlyn Leary joins the staff and is expected to compete for innings. Lexi Byrd (freshman) will add innings and, like McPhail, will be a utility player.
“We have the luxury of having five pitchers on the varsity,” Lee said. “So, it should be competitive. We can give teams different looks.”
Seniors Ashleigh Drosos (first base) and Randi Saito (utility/pitcher), a Hilliard Darby transfer, should provide some leadership for the young Patriots.
Orange may have new leadership in a first-year coach. But, Jenna Tullis is a familiar voice for the young Pioneers. She spent the last four seasons as former skipper Bruce Leary’s assistant.
Leary was the first Orange softball coach. He announced his retirement following Orange’s first-round loss to Hilliard Darby at the end of last season.
“I’ve learned a lot — I feel like we worked really well together,” Tullis said. “I was kind of the person that worked on culture and worked on relationships with the girls and he just knew softball so well. So, I feel that was a part of me that grew the most with him.”
Leary skippered a 2012 OCC-Capital title team and led the Pioneers to Division I district runner-up finishes in 2012 and 2015. He led Bloom-Carroll to two Division III state championships (2006 and 2007) prior to taking over at Orange.
Tullis played soccer at Urbana after playing soccer and softball at Marysville, and will be joined by Allison Opalich and Alex Webel, both first-time assistants. Tom Clarkson, a volunteer assistant, also returns from last year’s staff.
“I’m going to make mistakes — this is my first year,” Tullis said. “The only thing we can do is keep working hard and practice and try to prepare for all situations.”
Tullis has some experience back off of last year’s squad, which finished 10-15. She likes her team’s versatility.
“We have a lot of utility players this year, so I’m very fortunate with that,” Tullis said.
Tullis added that a plethora of utility players allows her to design her lineup around whoever is in the circle.
Both pitchers, Alex Nagy (senior) and Brenna Oliver (sophomore), return. Seniors Ally Brandt (outfield), Marlo Robinson (first base) and Raelynn Bishop (catcher/first base/right field) are also back in the fold.
Juniors Alyssa Laisure (catcher), who has verbally committed to play ball at Findlay, and Cami Clarkson (shortstop/third base) return from last year’s squad.
Juniors Alex Ronk (outfield) and Katie Achevich (second base/outfield) and Marie Beattie (middle infield/outfield/sophomore) and Grace Holz (utility/freshman) join the fold. Ronk, a lefty, also provides depth in the circle.
Follow Michael Rich on Twitter @mrichdelgazette.