Fastpitch preview: Wolves looking to end long absence from state

Date Opponent Time
April 11 at Yelm 4 p.m.
April 13 at Central Kitsap 4 p.m.
April 16 Walla Walla* 8 p.m.
April 18 at Shelton 4 p.m.
April 20 Bellarmine Prep 3:30 p.m.
April 22 Gig Harbor 3:30 p.m.
April 25 at Mount Tahoma 4 p.m.
April 27 Olympia 3:30 p.m.
April 29 Central Kitsap 3:30 p.m.
May 2 at Stadium 3:30 p.m.
May 4 Shelton 3:30 p.m.
May 6 at Bellarmine Prep 4 p.m.
May 17 at Wilson 4 p.m.
* Game at the University of Washington

Coach: Kathy Ballew, 16th season.
Key returners: 2B Charlie Brown, sr.; RHP/OF Emily Cunningham, sr.; 3B Tonya Forster, jr.; OF/RHP Erika Henderson, jr.; OF Ashley Lockhart, jr.; C/RHP Ericka Hobson, jr.; OF Meagan Ransier, sr.
Top newcomers: RHP/IF Alissa Buss, so.; 1B/RHP Ashley Chamberlin, so.; C/OF Kayla Clauson, so.; INF Monique Mendiola, so.
Key departures: C/3B Bridjet Box, graduated; RHP/OF Emily Bricks, sr.; OF Meghan Houston, graduated; OF Janelle Howard, graduated; SS Holly Lider, graduated; 1B Alexis O’Dell, graduated.

South Kitsap wanted to end two lengthy streaks last year.

But when the Wolves only accomplished one, they felt unfilled despite winning their first Narrows League championship since 2005.

“I have confidence that we’ll make it to state,” South junior outfielder Erika Henderson said. “That’s our goal.”

After defeating Kentwood to set up a winner-to-state, loser-out contest against Emerald Ridge in the West Central District Tournament, the Wolves lost the latter game, 13-2. They last advanced to state in 2003.

“They want to leave their tradition; their footprint,” said South coach Kathy Ballew, whose team finished with a 17-5 record last year. “It’s not going to be just getting to state and being done. They don’t want to miss out again.”

Success in fastpitch traditionally has been dictated by pitching. The Wolves allowed only 2.82 runs per game in 17 regular-season contests in 2010. They return No. 1 starter, right-handed senior Emilly Cunningham, this season. She had a 9-4 record with a 3.52 ERA, including 69 strikeouts against 23 walks in 87 innings last year.

Ballew said Cunningham has pitched even better this season. She said that stems from being more mature, which allows Cunningham to avoid being flustered when she allows a hit or walk.

“She has come a long way,” Ballew said. “I’ve seen big growth there.”

Cunningham, who also plays first base, also arguably is the team’s best hitter. She had a .519 batting average and .759 on-base percentage last season. Cunningham also had a team-high two home runs, 18 RBI, six doubles and three triples.

She is the No. 4 hitter in the lineup this season.

“You have to have someone there with a good eye who is disciplined,” Ballew said. “I’m really pleased she is able to look for her pitch.”

Ballew said sophomore Ashley Chamberlin will bat third and either play first base or pitch, depending on what role Cunningham is filling. Sophomores generally are not expected to hit in run-producing spots in the lineup, especially on a team with state aspirations, but Ballew said Chamberlin made a significant impression during tryouts.

“She has a very powerful swing,” she said. “I’m expecting big things from her.”

Another top hitter from last season, Meagan Ransier, will hit leadoff and play center field. The senior had a team-high .424 batting average, including a .739 on-base percentage, and had six doubles, one triple, one home run and 12 RBI, last year. Ransier also is versatile enough to play shortstop or catcher.

“Ransier can do it all,” Ballew said. “She’s just an outstanding outfielder.”

Ballew said that versatility is common throughout the program and is one of her favorite aspects about the team.

“I think the word really is depth,” she said. “When we have to make switches, we don’t lose a thing. People feel comfortable and have experience with a few different positions.”

South has lacked depth in the outfield in recent years, but Ballew said that is not an issue this year. She said Henderson and senior Julie MacMillan will play the corner positions in the outfield. Combined with Ransier, she said she likes the trio’s athleticism and speed.

“We have a bit more speed,” said Ballew, referring to the entire team. “We might be able to be a bit more aggressive on the base paths.”

The Wolves will feature some changes in the infield this season. Junior Tonya Forster returns at third base, but Alexis O’Dell, a three-year starter at first base, has graduated along with shortstop Holly Lider. A pair of newcomers, sophomores Alissa Buss and Monique Mendiola, could capture the starting spots in the middle infield.

Ballew said she first saw Mendiola during a basketball game this winter and saw her hurl a pass downcourt in transition. Couple that with her athleticism and Ballew said Mendiola also could see time in the outfield.

Buss, who could bat near the top of the lineup, is expected to play a variety of roles for South, including pitcher or outfielder. Ballew said her offensive talent makes it imperative to keep her in the lineup regularly.

Senior Charlie Brown is expected to see playing time at second base, as well. Last season, Brown had a two-out, game-winning hit off Wilson’s Janessa Flynn. The Rams were the defending league champions and had seven consecutive wins against the Wolves before the hit.

“You can’t forget that,” Ballew said.

She said catcher remains the strongest position on the roster. South has featured Caty Lieseke, who later played at Whitworth University, Trish Tremper and Bridjet Box in recent seasons. Junior Ericka Hobson will fill that role this season. She hit .397 and had a team-high 27 RBI last season. Ballew said there is depth at the position behind Hobson with senior BilliRae McDonald and sophomore Kayla Clauson.

One change this season is the pitcher’s mound. It now is 40 feet away from home plate — three feet closer than last season. Ballew said she likes the change as the distance now is identical to the college game and should generate more offense.

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