After losing four seniors to graduation last fall, New Franklin softball coach Ross Dowell contemplated on how he was going to replace those players this season.
Although Dowell will get a glimpse a week from Tuesday in  a Jamboree at Fayette, the Lady Bulldogs will have plenty of arsenal left in the tank from 2016 with five returning starters and eight letterwinners.
Of course the Lady Bulldogs were pretty good last fall after finishing 17-8 under Dowell, which he said he still doesn’t know how that team won so many games.
“If we don’t shoot ourselves in the foot and field the ball behind our pitching, we will have an ok year,” Dowell said of the 2017 season. “Out of the 15 girls out we have eight returning juniors and seniors that should be able to start and then we will have 1 or 2 freshmen that will have to play quite a bit for us. However it’s going to be hard to replace those seniors. Cassie Armentrout batted .426 for us while Jasmine Himmelberg hit .348. Cassie and Jasmine also drove in 40 runs combined, and then Madison Maupin batted .363 and had an on-base percentage of .451. Same with Kaitlyn Utterback. Just the knowledge those four had will be hard to match.”
The Lady Bulldogs could also have their hands full in the Central Activities Conference this season. Dowell said Pilot Grove has everybody back from last year and probably the two better pitchers in the league in Bailey and Wolfe. He said the Lady Tigers also return their catcher and shortstop from last year. After that, he said Sturgeon didn’t lose much, either.
“Sturgeon threw a sophomore-freshman pitcher last year,” Dowell said. “Their top three can flat rake it and I saw them this summer and they are pretty good. Cairo should return everything and are kind of like us. They have a couple of holes to fill, though. They had a freshman catcher that was really good.
“The Winkler girl is back at shortstop, however, they lost the conference’s MVP in King. Madison is going to be good. They lost 4-5 seniors last year but their pitching will keep them in a lot of games. I think you have those four and then you have us, Glasgow and Slater in the lower half. Until we figure things out that’s where we’re at.”
Maybe for now but if the Lady Bulldogs have one strength this season it’s that they are strong at the corners in senior Kacie White at first and senior Madison Matney at third.
Dowell said his daughter, Sydney, also returns at second base after playing 24 games last year and starting 12-13 as a sophomore.
“Lauren Evans also played second base so she is just switching to the other side at shortstop,” Dowell said. “I think the infield as a whole should be pretty solid, and then we have Shelby Breshears in center and Katie Dobson in left when she gets enough practices in. Again we are not quite where we were in June and I don’t know why because we worked out pretty hard this summer.”
Of course the Lady Bulldogs will also have several weaknesses this season. Dowell said just the overall experience and movement could hurt New Franklin some this season. One example Dowell pointed out was moving senior Grace Hundley from shortstop to catcher this season.
“Grace always led from the field and now she is behind the plate, which most catchers lead from,” Dowell said. “I think offensively after the first-four hitters we are going to have a lot of growing up to do quickly.”
Dowell said it wouldn’t be realistic to think the Lady Bulldogs could match last year’s win total. However, he said the goals really don’t change from year to year.
“We would like to compete for the CAC, which is going to be very hard for us and then you would like to play for a district title at the end,” Dowell said. “Realistically with our schedule we want to win between 13-15 games. I don’t if that is a stretch for this team or not but those are basic goals that we have every year.”
The Lady Bulldogs may also be hard-pressed to match last year’s batting average as a team while hitting .364.
However of the five returning starters this year, four hit .300 or better.
As for the infield, senior Grace Hundley will return for her fourth season as a starter and first at the catcher position. While earning all-conference and all-district in 2016, Hundley also finished the season hitting .372 with 29 hits in 78 at-bats with a team leading three triples and 14 stolen bases.
White also returns at first base for the Lady Bulldogs. Like Hundley, White was selected to both the all-conference and all-district team in 2016 after hitting .383 with 31 hits in 81 at-bats with a team-leading two home runs and 28 RBIs.
New Franklin will also have plenty of experience returning at second base. With Lauren Evans switching to shortstop, Dowell will look to his daughter to hold down the fort at second. Although Dowell is noted more for her defense, the senior standout still manage to hit .263 last year.
On the left side of the infield, Evans will get the starting nod at short. Although just a junior, Evans still hit .365 last fall with 27 hits in 74 at-bats with a team-leading 11 doubles.
Madison Matney will also return for her final season at third. While earning all-district honors last year, Matney hit .316 with 24 hits in 76 at-bats with a team-leading two home runs.
Dowell said Evans will also see some time in the circle for the Lady Bulldogs along with junior Lyndsey Brown and freshmen Annie Benner and Alexia Sprick.
Although Armentrout carried most of the load last year in the circle, Brown returns after throwing 28 innings in 2016. Dowell said Evans also returns with some experience after throwing 18 innings as a sophomore.
As for the two freshmen, Dowell said they both have had their ups and downs.
In the outfield, sophomore Shelby Breshears will start in center after playing right last year.  She also hit .368 with 25 hits in 68 at-bats as a true freshman.
Dobson, meanwhile, will get the starting nod in left once she becomes eligible with the required number of practices.
As for the right field position, Dowell will look to a trio of three freshmen in Alexia Sprick, Madelyn Chaney and Isabelle Matney. Dowell said Matney will also be the backup catcher.
“We are going to have to be patient with the outfield,”  Dowell said. “They are going to be green, especially in right. I thought last year I had one of the best outfields in all three spots. I have had some better outfielders but I have never had three that solid. However I do like this team right now. We are just not quite where we were at this time last year.”
With the top five hitters already set in stone with Hundley, Breshears, Matney, White and Evans, Dowell said this year’s team will have to scratch out some runs.  “We are going to have to play a little different way this fall,” Dowell said. “I will know a little more after the Jamboree but right now we are a little beat up with some injuries.”
New Franklin
Softball Schedule
8-19-Lady Pirate Classic, TBA
8-21-BOONVILLE, 5 p.m.
8-24-at Slater, 5 p.m.
8-25-at Madison, 5 p.m.
8-26-Boonville Tourn. (Rain date)
8-29-CAIRO, 5 p.m.
9-1-at Jamestown, 5 p.m.
9-5-FAYETTE, 5 p.m.
9-9-New Franklin Tourn., TBA
9-11-at Russellville, 5 p.m.
9-12-at Glasgow, 5 p.m.
9-14-STURGEON, 5 p.m.
9-18-at Salisbury, 5 p.m.
9-20-HARRISBURG, 5 p.m.
9-22-PILOT GROVE, 5 p.m.
9-23-Versailles Tourn., TBA
9-25-Hallsville, TBA, 5 p.m.
9-30-New Franklin Tourn. (Rain Date)
10-2-LAPLATA, 5 p.m.
10-4-7-Districts, TBA
10-11-Sectionals, TBA
10-14-Quarterfinals, TBA
10-19-21-State, TBA.
Note: Home games in caps.