LAPEL — For the first time in several years, Lapel softball coach Scott Rich enters the season not sure what his starting lineup will look like, or even if it will be the same from game to game.

Four key starters from last season’s 19-7 sectional finalist have graduated, leaving three-fourths of the starting infield and the catcher’s position up for grabs during preseason workouts.

Despite these challenges and a young roster, there is reason for optimism as the Bulldogs prepare for the 2017 season. Several big bats in the middle of the lineup will provide plenty of offensive firepower, and Lapel returns its entire pitching staff from a year ago, leaving Rich with the task of making sure his players are in the right place defensively.

“It’s going to be a challenge,” he said. “The good news is, we’ve got a pretty decent core. I’m battling right now with positioning, who am I going to play where. Part of that is self-imposed, because I don’t like playing my pitchers in the field.”

With a roster numbering just 11, possibly 12, players, the Bulldogs can ill afford to have one go down with an injury.

Rich does not want to lose a pitcher because he had to play her in the field; pitching is one of the true strengths of the team, as all three pitchers from a year ago return to toe the rubber this season.

The staff will be led by the lone senior on the squad, Brooke Daniels. Despite missing some time with an injury, she finished last season — which included a shutout win against Frankton in the sectional — at 6-4 and led the team with 43 strikeouts in 55 innings pitched while allowing opponents to hit just .226 against her.

Chloe Bousman returns to the staff following a breakout freshman season that saw her lead the team in wins (8), starts (10), complete games (9), shutouts (3), earned run average (3.76), and innings pitched (72.2). Junior Sophie Cline (5-1, 4.61) is the third member of the staff that has Rich’s confidence.

“I thought Chloe really ended the season well last year,” Rich said. “I’m kind of anxious to get her back in the circle to see if that carries over to this year.

“I still think as far as hitting spots, Sophie is the best one we’ve got. I have confidence in her, and she needs to have that confidence in herself. Pitching, if we can keep everyone healthy, is definitely going to be a strong suit of ours.”

Cline is also one of four powerful bats in the heart of the Bulldog lineup that can produce runs in a hurry. Primarily an outfielder, she batted .408 last year and led the team in doubles with 12 and home runs with four.

Junior catcher/shortstop Jasmine Hazelbaker (.505, 3 HR, 31 RBI) was the team leader in triples and runs batted in and struck out just six times in 104 plate appearances.

Fellow junior Taylor Murdock (.341) is an outfielder who provides speed on the bases, while sophomore Addie Bailey was the surprise performer from a year ago, batting .483 as a freshman and tying Cline for second on the team in RBI with 24. Bailey is expected to vie for the vacant starting job at first base this season.

Coach Rich said the team’s offensive fortunes will hinge on this group continuing to be productive. He hopes sophomore outfielder Kylie Rich (.324, 17 runs) can move into the leadoff position to enable Cline, who had batted in that position as a freshman and sophomore, to move into the heart of the order, providing protection for Hazelbaker.

He also hopes junior Chelbie Hollen (second base) and sophomore Danielle Fox (catcher), who combined for four total at-bats last season, can step up this year to help set the table for the run producers. The team’s lone freshman, Megan Sundheimer, is expected to add a little offensive pop to the batting order.

In addition to being the team’s most productive offensive player, Hazelbaker is Lapel’s most vocal leader. It is a role she assumed a year ago, and she has impressed her coach with her offseason leadership as well.

“Jasmine has kind of taken (Fox) under her wing and helped her,” Rich said. “They’ve had some offsite workouts, and she’s been a big help. She’s been the leader all through conditioning; she’s there every day religiously. She does everything I’ve asked, helping motivate the other girls.

“I found myself, during workouts and open fields, kind of looking to her,” he said. “That tells me that I can trust her. This is sort of her team now.”

The Bulldogs open their season at home at 5:30 p.m. March 21 against Elwood.

[sc:pullout-title pullout-title=”At a glance” ][sc:pullout-text-begin]

Roster as of press time

00-Sophie Cline (Junior)

2-Addie Bailey (Sophomore)

6-Brooke Daniels (Senior)

14-Jasmine Hazelbaker (Juniore)

15-Maloree Linn (Junior)

18-Chelbie Hollen (Junior)

20-Taylor Murdock (Junior)

23-Kylie Rich (Sophomore)

42-Danielle Fox (Sophomore)

43-Chloe Bousman (Sophomore)

3-Megan Sundheimer (Freshman)