Lakota East’s Sydney Larson gets a piece of the ball during a 6-5 win over Lakota West in a Division I regional softball game May 26, 2016, at Centerville. NICK GRAHAM/STAFF

Prep softball preview: Experience should keep Lakota East at high level

LIBERTY TWP. — Experience will be key for the Lakota East High School softball team this season.

The Thunderhawks graduated all three of their outfielders but the roster is made up entirely of seniors and juniors, most of whom played last year and helped East to a 21-5 finish with a 14-4 Greater Miami Conference record. There are four seniors and 10 juniors on the roster.

East coach Steve Castner is hoping that translates into a fast start. The Hawks open Monday at home against Mason, which has won the last two GMC titles outright and five straight overall, including sharing with East in 2016.

PREP SOFTBALL SEASON PREVIEWS

» Badin Rams

» Fairfield Indians

» Franklin Wildcats

» Hamilton Big Blue

» Lakota West Firebirds

» Middletown Christian Eagles

» Monroe Hornets

» New Miami Vikings

“The girls that are juniors are tested, have been to the games before, and it’s going to be interesting how things unfold with other teams in the league,” Castner said. “Experience-wise, I think a lot of varsity ball early in the year, if you have experience, it gets you through the season. If you’re young, the first third of the season wakes you up. Girls with varsity experience know what they need to do, and they just kind of step in and go.”

Among the top returnees are senior pitcher Sydney Larson, junior infielders Abby Beckham and Cassidy Hudson, and junior catcher Abby Niehaus. Larson was a first-team All-GMC pick last year after going 13-4 with a 2.05 ERA and 108 strikeouts over 103 innings.

Hudson, also a first-team selection, was the team’s top hitter, batting .506 with 12 extra-base hits, 23 RBIs and 27 runs.

“I think we’re well-rounded,” Castner said. “We have three pitchers, so that’s a big plus. If something happens and one is getting hit, we still have another backup. We seem to be fundamentally sound defensively and at the plate. We just have to put together a string of 27 games before the tournament, which is a lot, so we’ll just take it one at a time and hopefully get better as we go or at least stay consistent every game.”

Junior shortstop Hailey Holtman returns at shortstop, and junior Ali Lewis and senior Cali Hoffman are battling for the spot at first base. Junior Madison Cureton and senior Faith Becker could also see time at catcher, as could Hudson.

Castner isn’t worried about the new outfielders needing time to settle in because they all have experience, just not necessarily as the full-time starters. Juniors Kylee West, Emily French, Jess Church and Cureton are all in the mix and could end up in a steady rotation, along with Larson when she’s not pitching.

“They are doing an excellent job,” Castner said. “In our scrimmages so far, the outfield has played really well. And again, since they are all juniors and seniors, there’s a little more maturity there than if you were just throwing in a freshman or sophomore.”

At times, East could have an entire field of juniors depending on who is pitching. Church also returns as one of the three pitchers who will see time in the circle, joining Hope Becker as the next options after Larson.

PREP BASEBALL SEASON PREVIEWS

» Badin Rams

» Carlisle Indians

» Cincinnati Christian Cougars

» Edgewood Cougars

» Fairfield Indians

» Fenwick Falcons

» Franklin Wildcats

» Hamilton Big Blue

» Lakota East Thunderhawks

» Lakota West Firebirds

» Lebanon Warriors

» Madison Mohawks

» Middletown Middies

» Middletown Christian Eagles

» New Miami Vikings

» Ross Rams

» Talawanda Brave

Castner said the experience at pitcher especially should be helpful.

“That’s a huge factor,” he said. “In the past, most teams are built around their pitcher. Your offense will get a couple runs when you need it, but if your pitcher is not experienced and steps into a big game with the game on the line, you can’t expect a girl to rise up and mow people down. That experience gives you a sense of pride and comfort. If your pitcher does what she’s supposed to, the game will take its course.”

While the experience is a strength, Castner said it’s still no guarantee for a smooth season. East has to be able to score runs when the opportunities are there and make plays when there are chances to make plays, he said.

The GMC will continue to be a tough place to play with Mason, Lakota West and Fairfield among the top teams, where East also expects to be in the picture, but Middletown and Hamilton also could be knocking on the door, Castner said. And, in the postseason, it’s anyone’s game. The GMC champion isn’t always the team to go the furthest.

“We play teams that are good enough to knock us down, and we are good enough to knock anyone off,” Castner said. “If we do what we’re capable of doing, we will be on the better end of that.”

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