BEACON FALLS — The most successful season in the history of Woodland softball left behind banners and championships. But, it also left behind many holes in the Hawks’ lineup and field that it resembled Swiss cheese before this season.
But coach Loren Luddy is looking forward to the chance to work with a very inexperienced and young team that boasts just four returning starters.
“It makes it a challenge, but it’s exciting,” Luddy said. “The two other times we had young teams that started from scratch, they ended up doing the best three years later.”
The Hawks have the difficulty in replacing the best pitcher in program history in Katie Alfiere, who was twice an All-NVL pick and earned all sorts of accolades in her senior season, including the NVL Top Senior Award and all-state honors.
Alfiere’s matriculation to pitch at Quinnipiac University leaves the Hawks’ roster with no pitchers who have seen the varsity circle. Junior Angie Wirsing and freshman Samantha Lee are competing for time in a league known for its excellent pitching.
“As of right now, Samantha Lee will probably be our opening-day pitcher as a freshman,” Luddy said. “But we’ve only had one scrimmage and we have three left to see.”
Luddy thinks senior captain catcher Rebecca Norton will help develop the young pitching staff after having experience catching Alfiere and former All-NVL hurler Kelley Mollor.
“It’s very comforting with brand new pitchers to have a captain catcher who’s used to catching very talented pitchers and has a wealth of experience behind the plate,” Luddy said.
Norton is one of three captains on the squad, along with senior outfielders Kara Hames and Lindsay Boland. Those two started in left and center field for last year’s NVL champion, and sophomore Nicole Fowler is poised to earn the starting job in right.
“Our outfield is definitely our strength,” Luddy said. “All three girls played a significant amount of time in the outfield last year and we have two captains in the outfield. They cover a lot of ground and without a single pitcher with varsity experience, it’s comforting to have a fully strong outfield.”
With the three captains and junior Emily Wirsing, who will likely play shortstop, the team doesn’t have a wealth of experience but does have leaders who may have the leftover winning mentality from a team that went 22-4 and reached the Class M quarterfinals last year.
Luddy thinks the returning players might feel some pressure entering this season as the defending league champion.
“I definitely think that they feel pressure coming in as a defending champ,” Luddy said. “It’s especially hard for the three senior captains who were in the atmosphere of losing was not acceptable last year. Last year’s team had the talent to win every game in the NVL and not winning wasn’t acceptable for them.
“It’s great to keep that competitive edge but it’s hard to change your mindset and know that it could happen,” Luddy continued. “You might not win all these games and it’s OK. It’s hard for those captains to come off that competitive drive and have to start again.”
For the five spots not locked down by returning players, Luddy said there has been a lot of coaching necessary in the preseason to prepare the young team.
“It’s been a long time since we’ve had to teach bunt coverage for the first time, teach cutoffs for the first time, teach communication,” Luddy said. “It’s brand new. It’s like my first year of Woodland again.”
Replacements are needed at first base, vacated by Kaiti Lembo, second base, left open by Emily Hutvagner, and third base, which will be open as Emily Wirsing moves to short to replace All-Stater Aubrey Roulanaitis.
Vying for playing time are junior first baseman Kristen Dempsey, junior infielder Kelly Sherman, junior utility players Amanda Santoro and Alyssa Skibo, sophomore infielder Brooke Leshin, and freshman utility players Brianna Pacileo and Rachel Starkey.
Even with the youth of the squad, Luddy said the team is keeping its goals high and wants to maintain its winning tradition.
“Our goal is definitely to make the NVL tournament and to make the state tournament,” Luddy said. “We’ve made it every year and we expect to do that again.”
Woodland starts the season April 6 and 7 with games at Ansonia and Brookfield before the home opener April 9 against Derby.