North County coach Sue Fitchett is hoping not to repeat last season,when her Knights' softball team narrowly missed the 4A playoffs.
The Knights began the year with high hopes.
The squad featured seven starters from the Fitchett-coached Brooklyn Park Class 1A state champion squad, including ace hurler Karen Hay, who won 16 games with a 1.41 ERA. The Knights' also had ace hurlerKristie Reinhardt from Andover, which merged with Brooklyn Park to form North County last year.
But after an auspicious start, the Knights' hopes were --ed in the regular-season finale by eventual Class 4A state champion Chesapeake. North County built a 4-1 lead over the Cougars before losing, 5-4, to miss a playoff berth by the slimmest of margins.
"We ended last year kind of disappointed, but they learned a lot and they're eager to get started this year," said Fitchett,who returns seven starters from last year's 12-6 team.
Fitchett'scounterpart, baseball coach Don Usewick, thinks his Knights "can be right in the thick of things" despite losing players like All-County second baseman Willie Scott and hurler John Ray (69 strikeouts) to graduation and returning just three starters -- T. J. Hall (pitcher, shortstop), John Bilheimer (left field) and Rob Franz (shortstop).
"We had a poor team batting average of about .220 last year, but I think that's going to improve," said Usewick, whose Knights were 8-11 a year ago.
Usewick's enthusiasm stems from a five-man pitching rotation that includes senior outfielder Randy Swain, juniors Eric Howard(third base) and Joe York (outfield) and freshman Mike Woodson (shortstop).
"All of our pitchers played some summer ball, but they lack varsity experience. They're mostly underclassmen though, which means their arms are young," Usewick said. "I think we have a solid defense, which is a plus. In our scrimmage with Centennial, there were lots of hits, no errors and all of the pitchers did well."
Hay, a second-team All-County player last year, is tops on the softball mound, where she posted an 11-5 record with five of her career-high 16 no-hitters. Hay, who has pitched two perfect games, will get support from third-team All-County windmiller Reinhardt and direction from third-team catcher Lisa Garrison.
Leading the Knights' hit parade is first-team All-County third baseman Tina Armstrong, who hit .512 a year ago and is getting looks from Towson State and the University of Maryland Baltimore County.
Returnees Tonya Kolodziejski (first base, left field) and Cheryl Tomshack (second base) shore up a solid infield,and third-team center fielder Nicole Faulkner bolsters the outfield.
Fitchett is looking to junior Nadine Slavin to fill the gap left by graduated shortstop Chrissie Barton and still is experimenting with a replacement for Colleen Morest, a right fielder who graduated.
"This team needs to come together quickly. Team chemistry will be very important, so we'll have to avoid injuries," said Fitchett.
Fitchett's sentiments are echoed by Usewick. "The usual case last year was that we never got the key hits," he said. "This year we have more depth in pitching with three potential No. 1s. I think that's going to be the difference."