By Angel Verdejo
Killeen Daily Herald
Area softball fans will see talented players and teams this season. They'll also likely notice who's not here anymore. Among the graduated standouts include Emily Leib, the Daily Herald's 2010 Player of the Year and Gatesville's all-time strikeout leader, and Shabanese Brown, whose statistics seemed more suited for a video game than softball field.
But don't worry, the area cupboard isn't bare.
Three teams made the playoffs last year and don't be surprised if they're right back in the postseason.
Lampasas won 24 games last year, ran through District 25-4A unbeaten and reached the region quarterfinals. With a drop to 3A and nearly everyone back, expectations surrounding the Lady Badgers are high.
Gatesville is just two years removed from a trip to the 3A state tournament and reached the region quarterfinals last season with a lineup comprised of freshmen and sophomores.
There's plenty of talent as well. Belton's Amber Peters signed with Temple College on Thursday and Harker Heights' Christina Hagey inked with McLennan Community College last month.
Lampasas has a pair of college-bound standouts in Marisa "Rizzo" Bogart (St. Edward's) and Kaitlyn Strickland (Ouachita Baptist).
Ellison, Harker Heights and Salado start their seasons today, with the rest of the area hitting the fields Tuesday before a weekend full of tournaments. Here's a look at each of the area teams and how they look going into the year:
Last season: 15-18, 10-4 in 12-5A
Key loss: SP Jenna Roach
Key players: Allison Boston (Sr.), Amber Peters (Sr.), Alex Wilson (So.)
Outlook: A slow start and an injury to hard-hitting shortstop Peters derailed Belton's high hopes of a playoff run last year.
However, this season expectations are even higher as Belton features a lineup with seven seniors, including the return of Peters from shoulder surgery.
Belton also may have the best pitching in 12-5A with Boston and Wilson. Wilson throws as hard as 65 mph and Boston was lights-out in district play in 2010 and finished the season 9-7 with 1.04 ERA.
Last season: 16-16, 5-9 in District 12-5A
Key loss: Shabanese Brown
Key players: Justine Hartwell (Sr.), Brianna Sinclair (So.)
Outlook: The Lady Bulldawgs return a core of all-district players, including Sinclair, Hartwell, Katelynn Stephens and Ashley Hartwell, who could see time at pitcher, shortstop and catcher.
But what Cove lost is just as big - Shabanese Brown was arguably the area's top player, while Savannah Seybold is at Texas Lutheran. The team is young with just two seniors (Justine Hartwell and Mari Chavez) and two juniors.
Last season: 4-22, 1-13 in 12-5A
Key losses: C Amanda Cruddas, OF Halley Ingram
Key players: Alyssa Castro (Jr.), Rayven Jones (Jr.)
Outlook: Ellison recorded its first 12-5A win in its second district game, after which the Lady Eagles collapsed, losing their final 12 games to finish at the bottom of the standings.
But enter first-year coach Rebecca Daley, who brings an upbeat and youthful attitude to a team brimming with potential thanks to juniors Castro and Jones.
Despite a 1-9 record on the mound, Castro led the Lady Eagles with a 4.86 ERA while OF Jones paced them on the base paths with seven stolen bases.
Last season: 5-19, 1-11 in 25-2A
Key loss: Kim Rennie
Key Player: Erika Martinez (So.)
Outlook: Florence loses its starting pitcher and second leading hitter from last season in Rennie, who is now at Brown Mackie College. Her replacement on the mound could be Martinez, who also was the Lady Buffs top hitter last season with a .415 average.
Last season: 27-11, 7-3 in 7-3A (regional quarterfinalist)
Key loss: Emily Leib
Key players: Amber Colson (Sr.), Megan Chambers (So.)
Outlook: First-year head coach Crystal O'Brien replaces Michelle Edwards (now at Waco Midway), while the Hornets also must replace three standouts now in college.
One of those is all-state pitcher Emily Leib, the program's all-time strikeout leader. Sarah Ridling takes over in the pitcher's circle, while Gatesville returns six all-district players, including Chambers, last year's 7-3A outstanding freshman.
Last season: 5-23, 2-12 in 12-5A
Key losses: C Veronica Espinosa
Key players: 1B/SP Christina Hagey (Sr.); SP Ashlyn Osborne (Jr.)
Outlook: After going 33 games between district victories, the Lady Knights notched two last season to dig themselves out of the district cellar. But now, with six seniors, including pitcher/corner infielder Hagey - who's signed with McLennan Community College - there are high hopes for a potential playoff run.
Osborne will again try and pace the offense from the lead-off position after hitting .370 last season with a team-high 30 hits and 18 runs.
Last season: 2-24, 0-10 in District 25-4A
Key players: 1B Leslie James (Jr.), P Olivia Lacewell (So.)
Outlook: With just two seniors on last year's team, the Lady Roos played valuable innings in District 25-4A, which had three of its four playoff teams reach at least the second round of the playoffs. Other than Waco Midway, which won the 4A state title last year, no other current 8-4A team reached the playoffs last season, so there will be plenty of opportunities for Killeen this season.
Last season: 24-10, 10-0 in 25-4A (regional quarterfinalist)
Key loss: Taylor Holloman
Key players: Marisa Bogart (Sr.), Tealey Farquhar (Jr.)
Outlook: The back-to-back 25-4A district champions look to make a serious run in 3A, returning everyone except standout pitcher Taylor Holloman. Farquhar and Kady Crow will handle the pitching duties, while the offense should be a major strength.
Bogart (St. Edward's signee) drove in 25 runs last year, Kaitlyn Strickland (Ouachita Baptist signee) hit .500 and Hadley Brown had a team-high 38 RBIs.
Last season: 12-15, 8-4 in 25-2A
Key losses: SS Kristen Dunnahoo, OF Mindi Dunnahoo
Key players: Camryn Bintz (Sr.); Kaitlyn Moseley (Jr.)
Outlook: A year after earning their first playoff berth in a decade, the Lady Eagles fell a game shy of making back-to-back trips, losing 1-0 to Little River-Academy in a play-in game.
But, returning a bevy of underclassmen from last year's team, including eight sophomores and juniors, Salado enters 3A hoping that experience can help it get back to the postseason.
Leading the charge this year will be hard-hitting catcher Bintz, who had an area-leading eight doubles to go along with 23 hits, 22 runs and a team-high two home runs, and ace Moseley.
Last season: 10-19, 4-10 in District 12-5A
Players to watch: Katie Quinn (Sr., C), Karlye Stapleton (Sr., Util)
Outlook: This group of seniors was sophomore standouts when the Lady Grey Wolves made their first playoff appearance in 2009. They need to replace Ashley Shannon's (McLennan Community College) slugging and improved pitching, but, led by Quinn, who signed with Clarendon College, the Lady Grey Wolves' talent could make Shoemaker a dark horse in 12-5A.