After a few workouts during their Spring Break trip to Gulf Shores, Ala., Grand Haven varsity softball coach J.R. Serna was confident in proclaiming that his squad has more talent than any of his three previous teams at the school.
Serna hopes that translates to a strong finish in the brutally tough O-K Red Conference and a district championship.
"We're hoping to win a district title, that's one of our goals," Serna said. "That would be our first since 2007. We're also looking to get between 15-20 wins, which would be an awesome step."
For a program that struggled to single-digit wins in Serna's first years on the job, strides have obviously been made, thanks to young talent developing in the North Ottawa Youth Softball Assocation, as well as other leagues.
"That's been huge for us," Serna said. "Now we've got kids coming in who understand the game and are skilled in the fundamentals. Before we had to do a lot of teaching. Now, we're moving forward."
Serna's roster is broken down perfectly by class — three seniors, three juniors, three sophomores and three freshmen. He's banking on strong leadership and production from three-year varsity players Emily Shaler and Abby Styck — the team's senior captains. Shaler will play first base or the outfield for the Bucs, while Styck will play second or pitch. Fellow senior Alissa Whitman provides good speed and a decent glove in the outfield.
In the junior class, Serna welcomes back Cierra Slocum, who will start again in the outfield, while Lousia Johnson will fight for time at first base. A surprise addition to the team is Maddie Barshaw, who moved to Grand Haven from Indiana, and is slated to start in centerfield.
"We're thrilled to see her produce," Serna said. "She's obviously got experience playing the game and she's a welcome addition to this team."
RJ Morrow is arguably the biggest key returner for the Bucs, as she turned in an outstanding freshman season a year ago. As a sophomore, she's the team's No. 1 starting pitcher again, and also its most powerful hitter.
"She swings a big stick," Serna said. "She's been hitting the ball pretty decent (down in Alabama). She's the type of player that just goes at it. She gets things done."
Serna said Cheyenne Ray has made big strides in her game from a year ago, and will be the team's starting catcher, or see time in the outfield.
Arguably the team's best athlete is Katelyn Messer, who started at shortstop last season as a freshman, but could see time at third base. She'll bat leadoff for the Bucs and Serna hopes she'll score a lot of runs.
Messer could be pushed to third base because of the arrival of freshman Jordan Buckingham, a transfer student from the Gull Lake school district. Serna said she's played a lot of travel softball and is a very strong athlete.
"The kids were talking about her even before the first practice, because they've heard about her," Serna said. "She's a good hitter and is going to be a very good player for us."
Fellow freshman Kaylee Hartwell is versatile enough to be the Bucs' utility player, as she'll catch and log some innings in the pitching circle. She'll also provide a big boost in the lineup with her strong bat.
Another pitching option is freshman Audrey Boersen, who is also expected to start in left field.
Inexperience on the varsity level is the Bucs' biggest question mark, especially when facing proven squads such as Grandville, defending Division 1 state champion Hudsonville, or West Ottawa, which features Serna's daughter, Rachel.
"It's a sign that the culture of the program is changing, because these girls aren't intimidated," Serna said. "They're like, 'Why can't we beat those teams?' It's been great to see that type of attitude with the girls."
Miss Softball winners obviously don't come along every year, but Spring Lake coach Bill Core is moving forward without departed senior Evie Lorimer, who is now showcasing her skills at Central Michigan University.
Core still believes his team can contend for a title in the Lakes Eight Conference, but he'll have to depend on a very young roster. Spring Lake was 21-16 last season, while its 7-7 league record was good for fourth.
The Lakers could have three starters in the infield who are either freshmen or sophomores, while junior Ashley Keena will be the ace of the pitching staff. Keena, who saw some time on varsity as a freshman, went 11-11 as a pitcher last season and hit for a .263 average. She'll also play third base.
Freshmen Katie Mumby will split time between third base and shortstop, while fellow freshmen Desi Parker will play short or pitch.
"I feel we have good pitching with Keena and Parker, plus good defense and depth," Core said.
At first base, Core likes the power bat of 6-foot sophomore Kelsee Zuidema, who also had strong seasons with the Lakers' volleyball and basketball teams.
Returning starters for the Lakers include Emily Blahnik at second base, a .260 hitter; Desi Sherwood at catcher, who is moving from third base; and senior Mikaela Ederer, who has good speed as the team's centerfielder.
Also contending for outfield spots are senior Lizzie Goll and senior Rylie Leete, who missed most of last season with a foot injury.
Juniors looking to contribute in the outfield will be Jody Kremer and Baileigh Yeager, while infield reserves include junior Jamie Kossuth and Alycia Holmes. Backing up Sherwood at catcher is junior Sierra Woods.
Core proclaims that the Lakes Eight Conference is wide open, as several teams lost key starting pitchers — such as Fremont's Mckenzie Supernaw, Orchard View's Megan Vanderwal, and Fruitport's Bari Lee.
"Six of the eight Lakes Eight teams had senior pitchers," Core said. "Keena and Ludington's (Hayley) Brockelbank are the best returning."
Fruitport coach Bob Dorman said his team was spoiled with Bari Lee toeing the rubber the last three years, as the dominating pitcher helped lead the Trojans to a pair of district titles — including last seasons.
Replacing Lee's production will be difficult, but Dorman said there's still plenty of talent remaining from a squad that fell to Belding in the Division 2 regional championship.
"We had girls on the JV team last year that could have played varsity for many teams," Dorman said. "We've got the program where we want it, where girls can step right in. The girls have been waiting their turn. I've had my eyes on my JV team (last year)."
The centerpiece for the Trojans will be senior third baseman Morgan Glover, who has signed to play at Hope College. Glover was arguably the team's best hitter a year ago and has only improved her skill set by playing travel softball throughout the summer. She'll also pitch for the Trojans.
Taking over as the team's No. 1 starter is sophomore Andrea Benson. Dorman likes her talent, but wonders if she can be a doubleheader workhorse.
Returning seniors for the Trojans are centerfielder Amanda Benson; a three-year varsity player with great speed that will bat leadoff; second baseman Megan Gynung; and utility player Jenna Rabach, who has worked on improving her hitting.
Dorman is also excited about the return of catcher Lindsey Helsen, who contributed greatly in the Trojans' postseason run.
"She's got a cannon of an arm and she'll bat either third or fourth in the lineup," Dorman said.
New starters for the Trojans include sophomore Kelsey Alviar at shortstop; junior Erin Fielding, who dominated at the JV level; and junior Bre Burns, a three-sport standout at Fruitport.
Dorman is happy to see Alexia Black back in the sport after she didn't play as a junior. She'll play first base or in the outfield and has some pop in her bat. Allison Beckwith, a 6-foot-1 junior, is also making big strides everyday and could see time at first.
A question mark for the Trojans is sophomore Taylor Clark, who is out with an injured shoulder, but could provide a power-hitting boost once she returns later this month.
Instead of winning pitching gems this season, Dorman said the Trojans may have to outscore teams, which they're more than capable of doing.
"We don’t' want to give up walks and our defense can't let us down," he said. "We can't be giving up six outs. We need to get three up, three down and go hit."
The Warriors lost five starters to graduation from a squad that finished 6-16, but head coach Jeff Nestell is confident in several underclassmen that have stepped up.
A key player for WMC is pitcher Anna Sweetman, who gave up AAU basketball to concentrate on softball.
"We brought in a pitching coach to help in that area and so far it has paid off, as Anna is looking good," Nestell said.
Other key Warriors are Arina Brondyke and Sara Katje, as well as Lorelle Hallenbeck and Emilee Pell, who will be sharing catching and shortstop duties.
Also contributing to WMC's success will be newcomers Carly Poel, Jerra Cooper, Lydia Hanes and Elizabeth Pell.