The Spartans and Bulldogs have enough talented players back to make make another run to state tournaments.
By BRIAN RICHESSON
VINDICATOR SPORTS STAFF
Expectations are always high in the Boardman and Poland high school softball programs. Maybe more this season.
Boardman's first state title in any team sport came last spring when it defeated Hamilton 4-1 in the Division I game at Ashland's Brookside Park.
Poland joined the Spartans in Ashland but lost to Lima Bath 1-0 in 11 innings and finished as Division II runner-up.
The 2001 tournament runs, which Boardman and Poland completed, may serve as a preview to this season, because the story line is simple: They're not finished.
The two teams return enough talent to make another run to Ashland.
Want more: "It's like being an A student," related Boardman coach Bill Amero of his team's title and ensuing expectations. "Once mom and dad see an A, they want it every time."
Boardman lost just one starter from its 30-3 title team -- albeit an integral part in pitcher Marissa Bartholomew -- but has three college-bound players, including two to Division I programs.
"Now they have the attitude that other teams want to take something away from them that they have," Amero said of his players, "and they want to defend it."
Amero knows Bartholomew's shoes, which she took to Mercyhurst College, will be tough to fill, but junior Jennifer Pancake, 9-1 last season, will attempt to do just that.
Pancake will get support from senior Gina Rango, Boardman's leading hitter (.500) last season whose strength is at third base, and a couple of eager underclassmen.
Rango already has committed to Bowling Green.
"She knows our best defense is with her at third base," Amero said. "But she's content pitching or whatever role required of her."
The Spartans, ranked 20th nationally by Student Sports Magazine, also return senior Laura Amero (committed to Youngstown State) in center field and senior Mary McCabe (committed to Div. II Ashland) at shortstop.
Others: Completing the Spartans' experienced lineup are juniors Meghan Hovanic (catcher), Jennifer Feret (first base) and Audrey Martinko (right field); and sophomores Jaclyn Corroto (second base) and Krysta Sylvester (left field).
"Everything we've done, we've built for the long haul," Amero said. "We don't want to be a one- or two-year wonder."
The Spartans were scheduled to open their season today by playing host to Struthers at Fields of Dreams.
So close: Poland had numerous chances to put Lima Bath away for the state title, but the game went to extra innings and was decided on Bulldog mistakes.
"You wouldn't believe how many times the scenarios in that game have run through my mind in the past year," Poland coach Reid Lamport said.
Poland, 25-7 a year ago, enters the new season having lost three starters -- at catcher, first base and outfield -- but its strength could lie with its pitching.
"You go as far as your pitching is gonna take you," Lamport said.
Senior Sarah Knill returns in an attempt to build on a 21-5 record, and will be backed by junior Jessica Lamport, also a second baseman.
"She was our No. 1 as a sophomore," Lamport said of Knill. "She'll be expected to pitch big in big games. If she pitches as well as she did last year, we'll be fine.
"The offense should be more productive than last year," Lamport added, "and that will give her a few more runs [to work with]."
Top hitters back: The Bulldogs return their top two hitters from last season in senior center-fielder Emily Patton (.404) and junior right-fielder Katie Naumoff (.390).
Junior Kristy Gaudiose missed last season with a knee injury, but returns to play somewhere in the infield.
"She's another real fine athlete to add to the lineup," Lamport said. "She can be a productive offensive player, and she's got a strong arm."
Adding to Poland's experienced lineup are senior third baseman Michelle Nespeca, junior designated hitter Stephanie Russell and senior infielder Tiffany Fonagy.
"We have 14 girls, and our talent doesn't diminish with any of them in the game," Lamport said. "We feel that strongly about them."
Lamport plans to solidify his lineup during a season-opening spring tournament trip, which Poland began Sunday, to Summersville, S.C.
It is the start of a season in which the Bulldogs will attempt to win the Metro Athletic Conference for the 14th straight season and return to Ashland.
"The girls got a taste of what the whole enchilada was like," Lamport said. "But we're not putting all of our eggs in the state championship basket.
"We told them that we're not going to measure success on whether we're state champions," he added. "We're going to measure it on how well they improve and play together."