One of the biggest reasons Howard is the favorite for the Howard County championship is the battery of Kelly O'Neill and Stacey Swiney.
The first-team All-County duo from a year ago wasted no time establishing their presence in the No. 8 Lions' season-opening 3-1 victory over No. 15 Centennial yesterday afternoon.
O'Neill pitched a two-hitter, and Swiney provided the offense with a two-run double in the fifth inning that proved to be the difference.
"We played well considering the amount of time that has been spent outside so far this spring," said Howard coach Dave Vezzi. "I think we can hit a little better, but I'm pleased with the effort."
After consecutive first-round departures from the state playoffs, Howard has its best squad since the 1996 state semifinal team, returning eight starters.
The Lions had seven hits off Centennial sophomore starter Amanda Hall yesterday, but only two outside of the first and fifth innings. The difference was the experienced Lions made their hits count.
Centennial managed just one run off O'Neill, on on a two-out single by Jess Barrett in the bottom of the sixth. The senior right-hander capped a 13-strikeout performance by striking out the side in the seventh.
"She pitched very well," said Swiney, a senior. "Every once in a while she had some lapses, but overall, she pitched very well."
O'Neill aided her cause early. With two out, Swiney singled to center field, then moved to second after a passed ball. O'Neill brought her in with a single to center.
O'Neill struggled a little in her opening inning of the season on the mound, walking two batters after two outs. But she got Barrett to ground out to shortstop Sarah Berg to end the threat. After allowing a single to Hall to start the second, O'Neill allowed only one Eagle to reach base until the sixth.
Her young counterpart, Hall, one of eight sophomores on Centennial's roster, was equal to the task. Hall, who struck out four, allowed only one runner after the first before the Lions broke through in the fifth.
Rahnee Kelly opened the inning with an infield single, then was relieved on the bases by Amber Slavotinek. Slavotinek moved to second on a passed ball, then to third after a double by Kim Palmer that dropped just inside the left-field line. One out later, Swiney smacked a two-run double.
Centennial rallied in the sixth, starting with a throwing error by Berg that allowed leadoff hitter Kim Paulus to go to second. With two down, Barrett singled in Paulus, but O'Neill responded by striking out Hall.
Pub Date: 3/23/99