The Pilot Grove Lady Tigers softball team had a number of firsts last year on its way to a second place finish in the state tournament.
Along with winning a record 21 games, the Lady Tigers also had their best finish in the Central Activities Conference at 7-0. Of course nothing matches the final game of the 2017 season as Pilot Grove finished second only to Canton in the Class 1 state championship game.
That was last year. This season, the Lady Tigers are poised once again to make a run at the state title with six starters returning under head coach Neal Bailey.
“I think we will be pretty competitive,” Bailey said, “but the past is the past, we’re moving on. The first day of practice we talked about it. It’s possible to do it again but we have to work hard. This is a little bit different team than last year but the potential is there. We’ll have to stay healthy.”
With so many close games last year, Bailey said the one thing the Lady Tigers have on their side last year is experience. He said the pitcher, catcher and shortstop all return as three year starters while the first baseman comes back as a starter for the second year in a row.
Of course Bailey was quick to point out that while finishing 7-0 in the CAC in 2017, the Lady Tigers also had several close game. “Cairo will be up there at the top with us I’m assuming and then New Franklin is always good. Madison also has a good pitcher returning. We just have to stay healthy with only 10 girls out. The girls want to play and they want to win, but we’ll just have to avoid trying to play not to get hurt.”
Where the Lady Tigers are the deepest just so happens to be on the infield with four of the six starters back from last year.
Senior Samarah Bailey returns for her fourth season after finishing 19-4 with an ERA of 0.745. While earning all-conference, all-district, all-region and all-state honors in 2017, Bailey also pitched all but 30 innings for the Lady Tigers. She threw 141 innings and gave up 47 runs on 83 hits and only 28 walks while striking out 244 batters.
Bailey said his daughter has improved over last year. “She is a better pitcher,” Bailey said. “I think Samarah’s strongest aspect of the game is her mental approach.”
Bailey also hit No. 3 in the lineup last year while finishing with a .411 average with 39 hits in 95 at bats with a team leading 32 singles and 31 RBIs.
Senior catcher Melanie Wolfe also returns for the Lady Tigers after earning  all-conference, all-district, all-region and all-state as a utility player in 2017.
While finishing with a team-leading .489 average, Wolfe also had 44 hits in 90 at-bats with 13 doubles, seven home runs and 40 RBIs.
Bailey said it’s also nice having Wolfe behind the plate. “She understands the game well,” Bailey said. “I expect her to hit seven or more home runs again this year. When she is in a zone, she is as good as anybody.”
Senior Emily Schupp also proved that last year at shortstop and as the No. 2 hitter in the lineup.
While earning all-conference, all-district and all-region first team, Schupp was also selected second team all-state on the infield. She also finished the season hitting .416 with 37 hits in 89 at bats with 30 singles, six doubles and 14 RBIs. She also led the team in stolen bases with 24.
Bailey said Schupp is even better than what she was last year. “Emily knows the game,” Bailey said. “It’s a natural for her. She’s developed a power slap and that has added a dimension to her game.”
Also returning this season on the infield for Pilot Grove is junior Natalie Rentel at first base. While earning all-conference and all-district honors in 2017, Rentel also finished the season hitting .356 with 32 hits in 90 at bats with a team leading 11 doubles. She also had two home runs-the first coming against Calvary Lutheran in a sectional playoff game.
Bailey said Rentel is getting stronger and improving every day.
As for the rest of the infield, Bailey said freshman Grace Phillips will get the starting nod at second base while junior Reagan McFatrich will move from center field to third base.
Bailey said Phillips is a good contact hitter. “Grace also has a good glove,” Bailey said. “She won’t hit anything for power but she will put the ball in play. As for Reagan at third, she has picked  up the position pretty quick. She’s also improved her hitting. When she hits it, she hits it hard. Once we get some things worked out on the infield I think it will be just as solid ast year.”
As for the outfield, junior Abby Schupp will move from right field to center field this season. While hitting .305 last year with 18 hits in 59 at bats, Bailey said Schupp is making the adjustment pretty fast. “Abby made a lot of improvement late in the season last year,” Bailey said. “She brings pretty good speed to the outfield so I expect her to track down most flyballs this season.”
As for the two remaining positions in the outfield, Bailey said freshman Natalie Glenn will get the starting nod in left while Leah Vollrath, another freshman, will start in right.
“They are both improve about as fast as any freshmen I have,” Bailey said. “They are tracking and catching the ball. I am confident that they will hold down the corners, we just have to work on their bats. I think we are a solid outfield right now. Practice-wise I think we are as good as last year.”
Pilot Grove
Aug. 25-Marshall Tourn., TBA
Aug. 27-HARRISBURG, 5:00
Aug. 30-at Salisbury, 5:00
Sept. 4-COMMUNITY, 5:00
Sept. 6-at Glasgow, 5:00
Sept. 11-STURGEON, 5:00
Sept. 17-at Russellville, 5:00
Sept. 18-at Jamestown, 5:00
Sept. 19-Cairo Tourn., TBA
Sept. 20-CALIFORNIA, 5:00
Sept. 21-at Cairo, 5:00
Sept. 24-SO. BOONE, 5:00
Sept. 27-at New Franklin, 5:00
Sept. 29-Versailles Tourn., TBA
Oct. 2-at Leeton, 5:00
Oct. 5-at Madison, 5:00
Oct. 8-SLATER, 5:00
Oct. 10-Districts, TBA
Oct. 17-Sectionals, TBA
Oct. 20-Quarterfinals, TBA
Oct. 26-27-State Championship
Note: *-Home games in caps.