PENDLETON — The Pendleton Heights softball team won its sectional in 2016 with pitching, speed and a strong senior class.
That group of six seniors has moved on, but the Arabians will look to repeat as sectional champions with another half-dozen seniors and much the same recipe.
The Arabians are coming off a 12-15 season, which included wins against New Castle and Greenfield Central to win a sectional title.
It was an up-and-down season against a difficult schedule, which doesn’t promise to be any easier this season with non-conference foes such as Center Grove, Westfield and Noblesville in addition to a competitive Madison County slate and a tough group of Hoosier Heritage Conference foes.
But coach Rob Davis is entering this season with plenty of optimism.
And it all starts with a strong senior class.
“Without a doubt, we’re going to be strong in leadership,” he said. “Physically, we’re going to be stronger, and mentally, we’re going to be tougher than what we have been. There’s probably going to be four or five teams battling for that county championship. It’s going to be fun.”
Two from this year’s group of seniors also head up one of the team’s strengths — the pitching staff.
Audrey Ricker (8-10, 3.11 ERA) and Mackenzie McGuire (3-4, 2.34) anchor the pitching corps, which returns intact this year. Junior Kelsey Sturgeon (1-0, 3.00) and sophomore Amanda White are also expected to contribute.
“Audrey really competes when she steps on that mound,” Davis said. “Mackenzie, I’m looking for her to step in and contribute even more than last year. Kelsey is coming off a surgery, and hopefully by the end of the year she’ll be able to come in and be very effective. And my sophomore, Amanda, is someone that people may not know about, but they will by the time she gets out of here.”
Offensively, the Arabians return their top two hitters from 2016 in senior Jade Mollenkopf (.385, 9 2B, 13 RBI) and junior Lauren Landes (.379, 4 3B, 14 RBI) as well as Sturgeon, who led the team in home runs last year with three. Senior 3B Ashley King, who hit .325 last year and matched Sturgeon for team lead in RBI with 16, adds pop to the middle of the lineup, but for Davis, it is the team speed that will make the difference.
“We’ve been working on, with that speed, being able to drive the ball also,” Davis said. “We’re not a long-ball hitting team. I need Mollenkopf to step up as a four or five hitter, and Ashley will be consistent. We’re going to have to do a better job of executing; I think we lost a bunch of one-run games last year. I look for us, this year, to win a few more of those ball games.”
The Arabians lost a total of nine games by three runs or less, including four by just one run. Defensively, Davis has plenty of speed in the outfield with Landes, junior Savannah Hawhee (.313, 10 stolen bases), sophomore Jayden Brown (.225, 5 SB) and senior Delaney Long (.174, 5 SB) to help his pitching staff.
“Our outfield can fly, no doubt about that,” Davis said. “We’re going to be fast. Sometimes, we may be too fast, but they’re going to be confident and go get to some balls that maybe they shouldn’t. The biggest thing is the overall defense, making the routine plays that we should make.”
Among the players expected to step up this season and play a bigger role include White and sophomore Mickayla Winans, who are in a battle for second base, and junior Olivia Conner, who will be filling the shin guards of departed senior Kerrigan McClain, now at Anderson University.
“She’s has stepped in and taken on the responsibility,” Davis said of Conner. “She’s looking like she’ll have no problem filling those shoes with Kerrigan leaving.”
The Arabians placed fourth in the HHC in 2016, two games back of the three-way tie for first between New Palestine, Shelbyville and Yorktown. Those teams share a common trait with the Arabians in that they also return their top pitchers from last season, which could lead to another competitive conference slate with many low-scoring and close games.
“New Pal is just a factory down there,” Davis said. “Year in and year out, they just reload, and they’ll be loaded again this year. I’d have to say they’ll be the favorite this year for the conference title. Shelbyville is bringing back Fife (.464 BA, 10-2, 1.20 ERA), who is going to George Mason; she’ll be very strong. Yorktown might be down a little bit. It doesn’t matter who you play in the conference, it’s a strong conference from top to bottom. You have to show up and play every game.”
With such good pitching in the conference, Davis is hoping to get more important hits and not just hits.
“I’m not looking for someone to go four for four,” he said. “I’m looking for someone to go one for four when that one hit might be the only opportunity we get in that game; that’s something we didn’t do last year.”
The Arabians will open their season with home games at 5:30 p.m. Wednesday, March 29, against Westfield, and 5 p.m. Friday, March 31, against Center Grove.