ALBION — Over the past two seasons, the Central Noble softball team has won its first two Northeast Corner Conference titles, including a 10-0 storm through the league last season.

The Cougars have fielded one of the deepest rosters in the conference over that stretch, thanks in large part to an influx of super talented freshmen at the time, including lefty Sam Brumbaugh, Jocelyn Winebrenner and Maddie Bremer, all who return for their junior seasons.

Bremer returns as the team’s ace pitcher after leading her team to a 13-1 record in 2018 with a 1.43 ERA and 92 strikeouts. She shares the mound with Jennica Berkes, who earned a 4-3 record with a 2.80 ERA and 48 strikeouts in her freshman season.

In addition to her pitching, Berkes also led the team in batting percentage (.406) and runs batted in (25).

Brumbaugh was second on the team a year ago at the plate, posting a .383 batting percentage, with 33 runs. She also stole 21 bases for the Cougars. Winebrenner returns at second base, after breaking out in 2018 following an injury-plagued freshman year. She recorded a .370 percentage at the plate, and tallied 15 RBI.

Other notable returnees include sophomore Bridgette Gray (.312) and senior Andrea Leonhardt (.342).

While Central Noble returns a lot, it also loses players at notable positions, including departed shortstop Calista Rice, who was as automatic as they come in the infield. Outfielders Mikayla Weber and Kayla Rice also graduated after last season. Finding replacements who can step in and contribute at a high level will be key in claiming a third straight title, with semistate qualifiers Fremont and Fairfield waiting to steal the throne.

Lakeland

While many teams return several talented young players this season, no team returns more than Lakeland. The Lakers return everyone but one senior (Grace Arend) from a roster that went 8-3 in NECC play, finishing second in the league standings.

The Lakers return four star pieces from last year’s team, headlined by sophomore standout and Division I recruit Keirstin Roose, who led team in plate percentage (.615), hits (48), home runs (4) and was second on the team in RBI with 31.

Kylee Palmer returns for her junior season after smashing 33 hits and nine RBI while batting .423 at the plate. Sophomore Bailey Hartsough also comes back after a solid freshman campaign that saw her connect on 24 hits, 12 RBI and two homers while batting .316.

Then, there’s senior pitcher Elise Edwards. Perhaps the best pitcher in the NECC, Edwards struck out 209 batters in 2018 on a 2.38 ERA while allowing 79 runs in 144 innings pitched. She does a lot more than just wreck havoc on the mound, though. Also one of the team’s best hitters, Edwards led the Lakers with 33 RBI last year, while connecting on 32 hits and batting .376 overall.

Other notable returnees include senior Makayla Mast and sophomore Hannah Harris.

Despite all this talent, though, Lakeland finished just 6-9-1 outside of NECC play and showed plenty of youthful inexperience at times on the field. Expect that to be less prevalent in 2019, as the Lakers’ core brings another year of play under their belts.

Angola

A trip to the sectional title game on its own field capped a 15-10 season for the Angola softball team in 2018.

The Hornets suffered some tough out-of-conference losses, but finished with a 7-3 mark within the NECC, good for fourth place in the standings.

The Hornets will have to replace Regan Peppler, who is currently playing at the University of Saint Francis and excelled as the team’s top slugger a year ago with 49 hits and 23 RBI on a .533 percentage at the plate while scoring on 34 runs and hitting three homers.

Returning contenders to take over that lead batting role include senior DePauw commit Emma Konrad, who was second on the team in percentage (.422), hits (35) and RBI (30) as well as Jayden DeGraw, who connected on 31 hits, 23 RBI and a team-best four dingers with a .403 clip.

Senior Reace Peppler also returns to the lineup as a solid bat (.333) after tallying 26 hits, 13 RBI and two homers.

Both Reace Peppler and Konrad also split time in the pitching circle for the Hornets, alongside starter Janna Schwartzengraber.

Schwartzengraber, in her sophomore campaign a season ago, had her ups and downs last season, but still posted a 10-3 record while pitching 84 innings and recording 68 strikeouts. Konrad served as Angola’s second option, finishing with a 4-5 record and striking out 26 batters in 49 innings. Reace Peppler added 25 strikeouts in as many innings on the mound.

For the Hornets this season, improvement amongst their batting rotation will be key. Players such as Kyler Crowl (.235) and Hannah Blum (.349) posted solid numbers and played big roles for the Hornets in 2018, but the younger half of the batting rotation showed its youth many times, especially in the sectional final loss to Bishop Dwenger.

Fremont

The Eagles enter the new season on the heels of the best year ever in program history.

Last season, Fremont posted a team record of 26 wins as well as claiming the program’s first regional title. Unlike many other area schools, though, it’ll have to overcome significant losses to get back to that form.

While so many other teams return bunches of their lineups from 2018, Fremont captured magic a year ago by utilizing a talented senior class that included all-time home run leader Tory Foster, infielder Baleigh Weidenhammer and catcher Gabrielle Saltzgaber.

The cupboard is certainly not bare, though.

Senior Jaden Cardoso and juniors Maddie Beeman, Riley Clausen, Macayla Guthrie and Makayla Connelly all return to featured roles on the field, and senior pitcher Autumn Godwin returns as the area’s most prolific force in the circle, as well as a recent Division I commit, signing to play college ball at Western Michigan University.

Godwin was the driving force behind Fremont’s successes last year, keying one of the best defenses in the area while posting just a 1.75 ERA through 132 innings. She recorded 163 strikeouts in those innings, and performed at her best in the state playoffs, including not allowing a single run during Class 1A sectional play.

Godwin also hit a walk-off home run in the regional championship game to send the Eagles to semistate.

Amongst the batting rotation, Beeman returns as the team’s lead bat (.389) and posted a team-best 36 RBI in 2018. Cardoso (.371), Guthrie (.354) and Clausen (.302) will also play key offensive roles for the team. In addition, junior Larissa Stancavage will be primed to see a bigger role this season. Stancavage posted a .500 average at the plate last season in a small sample size, going 6-for-12 in just 19 plate appearances — but flashed potential as yet another good bat for an Eagles team that already returns more production than many there.

Westview

Two years removed from an impressive 2017 season that saw the Warriors claim a spot as one of the NECC’s best, the Warriors likely enter the new season thinking they can regain that form after a .500 season in 2018.

The Warriors finished with a 5-5 NECC record last season, but return a decent amount from that season, which could lead to better results — the expectation around a school that excels is almost every sport it fields.

The trouble for the Warriors, though, will be replacing three of their top hitters (Adrianna Wilson, Hayley Courtney and Megan Schrock) that graduated after last season. Returnees such as Tori Antal (.400, 15 RBI), Addie Bender (.395, 17 RBI) and Shelbi Smith (.306, 13 RBI) will have to be counted on to pick up a greater portion of the offensive load until either new players step up into larger roles, or a different rotation is solidly established.

On the mound, a pitching rotation that was still relatively young looked exactly that. Zoe Williams returns for her junior season after posting a 7-6 record with a 4.47 ERA and 63 strikeouts in 75 innings. Past Williams, the Warriors are highly inexperienced, though, with the graduation of Sydney Witham, who served as the No. 2 last year.

Junior Chelsea Weaver was the only other player to get playing time in the circle last season, but pitched only four innings. Expect the Warriors to bring along at least one more face into this mix, as they try to solidify their rotation.

Walks were an issue, as the combined staff surrendered 96 of them last season. However, if Westview can find consistency in its pitching, as well as its batting lineup, it has enough to still make some noise in conference play.

Prairie Heights

It’s been a tough road to travel for the Prairie Heights softball team.

The Panthers finished the 2018 season with a 5-15 overall record, with three of those victories coming within the NECC. Three years removed from an 11-win season in 2016, Heights has to be hoping to regain some of that double-digit win form this upcoming season.

They may not be as far away from that as you think.

Six losses last season for the Panthers came within one or two runs, while three more games ended within three runs scored. Of those nine close games, five of them came within NECC play.

A 2-1 loss to Fremont capped the regular season for the Panthers, while they also played county rival Lakeland close, 5-3. Heights also dropped close games against Garrett (4-3), Westview (5-4) and league champion Central Noble (5-2).

For the Panthers, the issue may not be talent, or players. It’s finishing.

The team did lose quite a few seniors, though, and a younger roster may have a tougher time replicating those tight games against good competition.

Players such as Trelynn Tschannan and Maddie Harmes were solid contributors to last year’s team, and could be primed for even bigger roles in 2019. It’ll all be about how quickly those younger and less experienced players come along in determining what kind of successes Heights will enjoy this season.

East Noble

Rylee Cripe returns for her junior season as the leader of a batting rotation that has proven to be capable to hit with the best of teams, but also has not been able to do so consistently.

Cripe batted .543 last year and tallied a team-best 38 hits to go with 14 RBI and two home runs. Senior Grace Erwin (.500, 3 HR, 22 RBI) also returns as a live bat and will anchor the infield. Other players such as sophomore Lauren Lash (.384), sophomore Avan Beiswanger (.452, 17 RBI) and senior Miranda Arnold (.375) will also play large offensive roles.

In the circle, Dani Jaquay (3.88 ERA, 28K) returns as the team’s top arm after splitting time with the graduated Taylor Peters.

The Knights were sub-par in league play, though, going 3-4, and will need to improve upon consistency to take the next step forward.

DeKalb

A lot was left to be desired for the Barons in 2018, and it started at the plate.

DeKalb batted .250 as a team, and was led by Myka Betley’s .362 average. She was one of just three players, though, to bat over .300 for the season.

The Barons finished 1-6 in NE8 play, and will need to improve their offensive production to contend with teams such as East Noble and Leo within their league, both of which can slug the ball.

Churubusco

The Eagles bring back much experience, with three four-year starters and many others with innings under their belts.

Seniors Breanna Baughman, Abigail Erwin and Brooke Nondorf are accustomed to being team leaders, as the squad had no seniors last season.

Joining them are juniors Madison Simmons, Kurstin Clark and Deja Monroe. Sophomores Katy Krider, Mariah Hosted, Cara Williams and Amanda Erwin all lettered last year as freshmen.

The girls had a .300 batting average last year and had no trouble scoring runs.

“Our biggest strength was our offense,” coach Phil Nicolet said. “We hope to have an even better offense this year, as many of our players have worked very hard in the offseason.”

All of the team’s pitchers return, and the squad will also add freshman Jaylynn Baughman to the rotation.

“This will give us more options and will give us quality pitching throughout the week when we play every day,” Nicolet said.

The team looks to improve on last year’s largest struggle — consistency, especially on defense.

Eastside

New softball coach Emily Scupholm and the Eastside Blazers want to prove their opponents wrong coming off a program-worst 2-16 record in 2018.

“There is so much talent on this team,” said Scupholm, who coached Eastside’s reserve team last season. “The leadership throughout the program is remarkable. Each person has a role, and is doing a wonderful job stepping into their roles.

“Coachability and humbleness are both strengths of this young team,” she added. “I told the girls right from the get-go that if I found that they were not coachable or willing to give each new drill a try, that they would not be able to play for our program. I think each girl has taken that to heart and is more than willing to try anything that we throw at them.”

As a team, the Blazers batted just .234 a year ago and struggled to score runs, but returnees Shyan McKinley (.392), MacKensie Rieke (.357) and Brittany Salinas (.296) all had solid seasons.

Also returning are outfielders McKenna Elzey and Lynzi Laub, infielder Siera Helmick, outfielder-catcher Ryleigh Howe and pitcher Jahnna Weaver.

Lakewood Park

Following a 12-12 season, Lakewood Park returns plenty of its roster from last season, but will also be tasked with replacing four of its top six hitters, all who graduated last year.

Mica Allen (.392) and Bethany Childers (.438) return as the team’s top hitters on a roster that is now fairly young. Allen also posted a team-high 20 RBI to go along with 20 hits last season.

The Panthers will have to overcome an injury to sophomore Maddie Lipscomb, though, who may miss the entire season as she recovers from back surgery. Lipscomb was the likely starter on the mound for the Panthers after pitching 65 innings in 2018.

She finished her freshman campaign with 55 strikeouts and a 4.16 ERA. Corrine Dager is the likely replacement. The junior struck out 18 batters in 20 innings on the mound with a 1.69 ERA.

West Noble

A 3-17 season capped another disappointing year for the Chargers, who haven’t won more than nine games in at least five years. West Noble had moments where it played competitive, but those moments were matched by equally disastrous times on the field.

The good news for the Chargers, though, is they are still young, and return six seniors. Sophomore Tori Franklin (.321, 7 RBI), senior Kourtnie Jones (.300, 12 RBI) and sophomore Kacee Click (.357, 11 RBI) all return as likely key pieces to a team that will be out to reform its image.

West Noble’s biggest problem last season came on the mound, where it posted a team ERA of 5.02. Click returns as the leading pitcher, and struck out 60 batters as a freshman, but also allowed 100 hits and 113 runs. Expect those numbers to get better with more time and experience.

Garrett

The Garrett community is accustomed to seeing a winning product on the softball field, something coach Jason Richards felt was missing during a 15-11 season in 2018. In 2019, those expectations are much higher.

All-Conference and All-Area catcher, junior, Kierra Richards highlights Garrett’s returnees, providing leadership and experience behind the plate. During her sophomore campaign, she recorded a .391 batting percentage, 18 hits and six RBI.

Also playing key roles will be the pitching rotation of junior Brooklyn Runion, sophomore Hallie McCoy and freshman Kaitlyn Bergman with the graduation of Chloe Hinkle.

In 2018, Runion led the current group with a 2-0 record on the mound, including one save, while 1.06 ERA, 20 strikeouts, and 17 runs, five earned, during 33 innings pitched. McCoy added 18 innings on the mound, finishing with a 2-1 record while recording nine strikeouts to 19 runs and a 6.87 ERA in her freshman season. McCoy was also one of two Railroaders to hit a home run in 2018.

Senior infielders Olivia Kelham and Kenzie Casselman also return with two full seasons of playing experience under their belts, as well as the complete outfield tandem of senior Marissalee Johnson and juniors Ryanne Arambula and Hanna Collingsworth.

Of the group, Casselman led the team in fielding percentage (.980) amongst players who played at least half of last season’s games. Kelham was second amongst the infielders at .844, followed by Johnson (.839), Collingsworth (.794) and Arambula (.760).

The rest of the varsity roster includes Autumn McDonald, Bailey Payton, Madison Holbrook, Sheri Boucher and freshman Joyden McNutt.

“It’s a deep group that will supply some much needed competition and keep everyone hungry,” Richards said.

Last season, Garrett seventh in the Northeast Corner Conference with a 5-5 record in league play. The team played to the second round of the Angola sectional, where it was defeated by eventual champion Bishop Dwenger, 12-0.

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