Mason on a mission to win state this time

Top pitcher Elle Buffenbarger returns for Mason, which has its sights set on a state softball title. JOHN CUMMINGS/CONTRIBUTED
Top pitcher Elle Buffenbarger returns for Mason, which has its sights set on a state softball title. JOHN CUMMINGS/CONTRIBUTED

Mason High School softball coach Liann Muff has much to be thankful for heading into the 2017 season.

This includes the weather when practice began Feb. 20. The Comets were able to get outside for tryouts and workouts.

“We were very lucky tryout week to get outside and see the kids,” Muff said. “Anyone can field an indoor ball hit at them in the gym, but what you can’t see is their softball IQ, how they break on balls and what kind of reads they make on a ball. To be able to see that is huge.”

The Comets are coming off a 26-3 campaign that ended with a loss in the state semifinals. Mason claimed its third consecutive Greater Miami Conference title, sharing the crown with Lakota East at 17-1.

“Our seniors are on a mission and they understand how to achieve their goals now,” Muff said. “First, we want to win the GMC. It is such a competitive league and it prepares us for the postseason.

“They want to win state. It is fun to get there, but they want to win those last two games.”

Mason dropped a 5-2 decision to Walsh Jesuit in its second final four appearance in three years.

“We are not just going to be happy to get there anymore,” Muff said. “We want to win state and they have really worked hard toward reaching that goal.”

Muff has the benefit of having All-Ohio pitcher Elle Buffenbarger back as well as catcher Brooke Rice.

Mason returns eight starters in Abbey Mullins, Olivia Popovich, Rice, Buffenbarger, Elana Harrison, Zoe Bishop, Jilian Aquilia and Ali Weekley.

“We went from a really young team to being an older team in a span of 12 months,” Muff said. “They know each other better. There is more maturity and they understand their roles.

“There is a confidence about them. They have an expectation of performing well. They know when they execute our goals that good things happen for them.”

Mason jumps right into the fire March 27 against Oak Hills. The Comets follow with games with Lakota West, Princeton and Lebanon in the first week.

Warriors wiser: Brian Kindell's Lebanon team is coming off a down year for the program.

Lebanon finished an uncharacteristic 18-11, including a 9-1 mark in the Greater Western Ohio Conference, not making it out of the sectional tournament after four straight regional final appearances.

“We didn’t achieve everything we wanted to last year,” Kindell said. “We know the players we have and they are ready for the challenge this year.”

The Warriors lost just two from last year and return the bulk of the varsity roster. Taylor Lewis returns for her senior season in the circle along with Kat Frank and Alexis Strother.

Strother has been the most impressive player through the beginning scrimmages for Kindell.

“For whatever reason things didn’t click for Alexis last year,” Kindell said. “From what we’ve seen, she’s playing like the kid we knew she was.”

Frank and Ashley West both return after getting experience as freshmen.

Molly Osborne will be behind the plate and Molly Riffle will see time at first when Strother is pitching.

Madison Hartman and Alex Gibson return for their third year as does junior Madison DeGennarro. Grace Gressly will start the season as the designated hitter.

“We always have an open competition for every position every day,” Kindell said. “I really feel like the kids we expected to nail down spots really nailed them down. There is no entitlement. They worked hard and proved they belong.”

The Warriors have a shift in the GWOC to the new National West with Northmont coming in and Xenia, Fairborn and West Carrollton being moved to other divisions. In addition, the Warriors will face a tough non-conference slate with games against Teays Valley, Greenville, Milford and Mason highlighting the schedule.

“I like where we are right now and I am optimistic we will be better,” Kindell said. “I can tell with the way they approach practice. There is a very quiet confidence in everything we do right now.”

Panthers experienced: Little Miami coach Mary Von Bargen watched four members graduate from a squad that finished 12-11, but he has a lot coming back.

First team all-Southwest Ohio Conference selection Alecia Kemp returns to hold down second base and provide a spark offensively.

Kaleigh Kilburn, a scond-team pick at third, returns to hit cleanup and catcher Maddi Brooks returns behind the plate.

Freshmen Alivia Conte and Casey Kemp are talented newcomers.

“Alivia can virtually play anywhere and is a speedster on the basepath,” Von Bargen said. “Casey is following in her two sisters’ footsteps by making a name for herself early. She is a pitcher and can also play anywhere on the field.”

Von Bargen looks for returning regional champ Ross along with Edgewood, Harrison, Northwest and Talawanda as challengers for the league title, but the Panthers’ goals are simple.

“Our number one goal this year is to win the SWOC,” Von Bargen said. “They have the hunger to win and I’m very excited to get the season started.”

Kings inexperienced: Coach Mary Ellen Bonner will have a lot of new faces as the Knights look to improve on an 18-11 mark.

Kings graduated seven, including the middle of its defense, its first baseman and two key role players.

However, the cupboard is not bare.

The Knights return seniors Laurel Smithson and Andra Malburg at pitcher and third. Add in freshmen Kelsey Schmidt and Abigail Lodewyck and the Knights have some versatility.

Schmidt will see a lot of time in the outfield and may be used elsewhere, including in the circle while Lodewyck will be a jack of all trades for Kings, seeing time at the corners on the infield, in the outfield and even catching.

“We are training very hard right now with our goal as always, which is to fight for the league title,” Bonner said. “I have seen great progress with the team. I like their enthusiasm and we are becoming a team that trains well.”

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