The expectations coming into last season were modest, to say the least. How much good should come from a team that lost 17 of its 20 games the previous spring?
New coach Jim Hendricks was hoping that the Anne Arundel Community College softball team would be competitive, that a batch of newcomers would help to keep it afloat in Region XX. He didn't expect miracles, though at times he might have thought he was witnessing one.
Did he ever imagine a 17-5 record? A national ranking? A Maryland JuCo championship and runner-up finish in the regional tournament?
"I knew we'd be a lot better than the year before," he said, "but to be honest, I thought a .500 or slightly better record would have been a tremendous improvement."
Now, with seven players returning -- including six starters -- and the addition of 13 others, the expectations have changed. The team is supposed to win. And right away.
"The one thing I've been talking to the girls about is that, last year people were taking us a little lightly. This year, we probably will be one of the top three favorites to win the region, and they'll come after us with everything they have," Hendricks said.
Anne Arundel has enough talent and depth to combat such a charge. Hendricks, a 1982 graduate of Annapolis High, said the roster is the biggest ever for a Pioneers team, and it includes three pitchers who would be aces on just about any other staff.
Sophomore Stacy Reynolds, a Northeast graduate, went 16-5, walked 29, struck out 72, set a school record for the lowest earned-run-average (1.01) and didn't commit an error in 76 chances. She also batted .446, knocked in 23 runs and was named to the All-Region XX first team.
She also threw 133 innings, but that won't happen again with the arrivals of Kristie Rhinehart (North County) and left-hander Ericka Shade, a former teammate at Northeast who attended Catonsville Community College two years ago, but didn't play softball.
"Stacy is our big-game pitcher," Hendricks said, "but it's so nice to have a Rhinehart and a Shade, knowing I can go out any day and put one of them in and feel very confident."
Besides Reynolds, the list of returnees includes first baseman Amy Fichter, a first-team All-Region XX selection who was ninth in the nation among junior college players with a .546 average. She had three doubles, three triples, two home runs, 27 RBI and 22 steals.
Three second-team All-Region XX players are back: center fielder Kristen Meade (South River), catcher Holly Hladycz (Broadneck) and shortstop Dora Taylor (Glen Burnie). Meade, the Pioneers' leadoff hitter, batted .436 with 20 steals. Hladycz batted .324 with 21 RBI. Taylor batted .440 with 30 RBI in only 59 at-bats.
The other returning starter is second baseman Denise Gibson, who batted .285. Rebecca Almon saw limited time in right field and again will be used as a reserve.
With 29 regular-season games on the schedule, everyone will get plenty of work.
"There will be time for all of them," said Hendricks, whose team spent a brief period ranked No. 22 in the nation among junior colleges.
Other newcomers are third baseman/outfielder Jeannette Merrick (North County), catcher Melissa Maisch (Old Mill), third baseman Christine Winters (Severna Park), first baseman Alicia Conine (Severna Park), outfielder Dana Gosewich (Severna Park), outfielder Jen Shanahan (Severna Park), catcher/infielder Sarah Storrs (Old Mill), second baseman Kendra Gottlich (Chesapeake), infielder/outfielder Terri Green (St. Mary's), shortstop/outfielder Wendi Haney and second baseman/outfielder Brandee Woodall.
Gottlich never played at Chesapeake, but she participated in summer leagues and has "one of the best pure swings I've ever seen," Hendricks said. Green, who transferred from Frostburg State, is the sister of former Anne Arundel standout Kathy Green and possesses "great bat speed," Hendricks said.
Many of the other players, like Merrick, Winters, Conine and Gosewich, have drawn Hendricks' attention with their defensive ability.
So what does all this mean to a program that tied a school record last year by going 17-5 and posted a .394 team batting average -- fourth best in the nation? Can it get even better this spring?
"Right now, I just want to get the season started and hope the weather breaks," said Hendricks, whose team opens with a doubleheader tomorrow at Prince George's.