Hammond Clark's Valerie Ruiz pitches against Morton Tuesday afternoon in Hammond. | Jeffrey D. Nicholls~Sun-Times Media
Updated: April 29, 2013 12:24PM
Top 5 Teams
Lake Central — The Indians were well on their way to a long postseason run before Duneland Conference rival Chesterton put the stop sign up in a high-scoring regional. LC lost three starters in the field, but return plenty of talent in the pitching circle and offensively. Junior Lily Del Toro and sophomore Annabel Karberg make up the pitching rotation, which should make things simpler for coach Jeff Sherman.
Andrean — The 59ers are the defending Class 3A state champs and No. 1 in the Indiana Coaches of Girls Sports Association (ICGSA) preseason poll, so life is good for second-year coach Brooke Baker-Runyon and her team, right? Resting on their laurels isn’t an option since the Niners lost a couple key players to graduation — Post-Tribune player of the year Nicole Steinbach (Ball State) at pitcher and third baseman Kaitlyn Barajas (Dominican University), as well as outfielder Johnee Rodish. Filling the hole at pitcher could be a group effort with seniors Hannah Kulesa and Katie Crandol competing with junior Claire Pardo for innings in the circle.
Chesterton — The Trojans pulled off one of the more unlikely upsets in the regional last season, handing Lake Central its second loss of the season in an offensive explosion despite the talented pitchers on both sides of the diamond. The Trojans broke the program record for home runs in a season (23) and that will also be a theme this year with junior Sydney Cooley and senior Megan Tymorek back after combined for 15 of those 23 long balls.
Crown Point — When the Bulldogs won the sectional two years ago, their pitching was good, but not quite as strong as other Duneland opponents. The offense and defense being the pitcher were keys to success. This time, coach Ginger Britton, who took over in the middle of last season under less-than-favorable circumstances, has a deep and talented pitching staff to lead the way.
Hanover Central — The defending Porter County Conference round-robin champ is looking to end its tenure in the PCC on a winning track and get back on the postseason winning trail after losing in the sectional last year. Then again, it didn’t help moving up to 3A into the same sectional as eventual state champ Andrean and Kankakee Valley. Returning seven starters gives the Wildcats a little bit of an advantage on those teams since both lose key players. Hanover’s core is back, led by junior pitcher Ashley Yoways and sophomore third baseman Melissa Balkema.
Portage — It’s been four years since the Indians won a sectional title, but they could follow in the footsteps of the gymnastics team. OK, maybe it’s a little lofty to think state title, but with everyone back from last year’s squad that went 18-8 overall and 10-4 (tied for second) in the tough DAC, including all-state senior catcher Haley Hodges, maybe a long postseason run isn’t a fantasy after all.
North Newton — The Spartans set a school record for games won last season (20) and won a postseason game for the first time. They doubled that record by winning two games in the sectional before losing in the final. The next obvious step is to win the program’s first sectional title, and with senior Allyson Leach back in the circle (she’s also been the team’s leading hitter the last three years), along with juniors Aubrey Spencer, Alyssa Cooper and Hayley Ross, coach Amanda Suarez’s squad looks ready to take that next step.
Lake Station — The Eagles won their first sectional title in 10 years last season. Now the pressure is on to repeat, which doesn’t happen in major sports very often at Lake Station. “Winning sectional gave our players the confidence to believe in themselves and that anything is possible,” coach Linda Llewellyn said. “We don’t look at it as pressure, but as another challenge.” With consistent pitcher Shelby Jorgensen — she went 59 innings without a walk during one stretch — and all-area third baseman Caitlin Acker (.563 avg.) back, the Eagles have a good chance at repeating and going even further.
Whiting — Speaking of teams that haven’t won a sectional in a while, the Oilers have failed to bring home a trophy the last two years. That may not seem like a long stretch, but 2010 was Whiting’s fifth straight sectional title and 11th in 13 years with no two-year stretch of not winning since 1997. It all comes down to the pitcher for the Oilers, and junior Mollie Lovasko is coming off a good season that could have been much better if not for some hard luck (five one-run losses). She had only 19 walks in 181 innings with 217 strikeouts.
Munster — Another team in the midst of a sectional drought is the Mustangs, who last won in 2008. Part of that has to do with being in a tough bracket with Lake Central and Lowell, which have both been pretty good over the years. Munster has only three seniors, but does have 10 returning players with varsity experience. Success will come down to the pitching of senior Carly Murphy (2.07 ERA) and sophomore Taylor Kotso (1.88 ERA) and hitting of Sadie Conner (.349 avg., 27 runs), Taylor Michalski (.316, 26 runs) and Gina Rice (.347, 20 RBI).
5 Players to Watch
Nickole Finch, Wheeler — The junior is more known for her all-area exploits on the basketball court, but Finch is also a pretty good softball player. This is her third year on varsity after producing good numbers last season (.321 avg., 6 HR, 28 RBI, 10-6 record in the circle with 2.13 ERA), and coach Marc Bruner says she “will be leaned on for leadership.” The Bearcats won the Greater South Shore Conference title (19-11 record overall) before losing in the sectional. For them to bring home postseason hardware, Finch will need to continue improving in her multiple roles.
Ashley Yoways, Hanover Central — The junior hurler hit .407 last year while producing a 1.31 ERA and 11-7 record in the circle. But to be placed in the company of former Hanover hurlers Beth and Amanda Wendlinger, she needs to step up and lead her team to postseason hardware as the most important player on the field.
Valarie Ruiz, Clark — She made an impact right away as a freshman last season in the circle and offensively with a .451 batting average. With a year of experience under her belt, she should be even better with additions to her arsenal of pitches to give the Pioneers a chance to end a sectional drought dating back to 1998.
Megan Tymorek, Chesterton — She arguably had the best stats from top to bottom of any region player last season. In the circle she was 17-9 with 175 strikeouts in 171 innings and a 1.64 ERA. At the plate she had a .434 batting average, .788 slugging percentage, nine home runs and 41 runs batted in. If she repeats that again, player of the year honors could be in her future.
Maggie Lindeman, Hebron — The last name is familiar, but little sister now takes over as the No. 1 pitcher in the circle for the Hawks after Mollie graduated (now pitching for Purdue North Central). But Maggie won’t have all-area catcher Emily O’Leary (now at Huntington University) to throw to anymore. Maggie had a 9-2 record with 0.72 ERA last year, while also providing some punch at the plate with a .351 batting average.
5 New Faces
Miranda Elish, Crown Point freshman — She’s already verbally committed to play college softball at the University of Oregon before ever throwing a pitch in the high school ranks. That’s not as uncommon as it may seem with offseason travel ball so prevalent, but it’s still an eye-opener. She will provide depth in the circle for the Bulldogs as they try to advance to regional for the second time in three years.
Kaitlyn O’Brien, Merrillville — She will be the third different coach at Merrillville in three years. Not exactly the way to turn around a program that won state titles in 1993 and 1997, but hasn’t won a sectional title since that second state crown. The Pirates are relegated to just hoping to win some games. Last year’s record was 1-24 after a similar record in the previous season. O’Brien likes the enthusiasm and passion of the freshmen out for the team this year, but it’s going to take more than that to garner more than the recent pattern of no more than one or two wins per season.
Don Bence, Griffith — He takes over as the new head coach after Ed McLeod stepped down. The Panthers won their first sectional title in five years last season, so the pressure is on to repeat, especially when he says they are “as young as it gets at the most important position (pitcher). I knew that going in — it’s going to be a challenge.” His team will be solid defensively, especially up the middle with Rhiannon Kozy, Alexis Atkinson, Sarah Galambos and Sammi Adams.
Patrick Fuller, South Central — He’s in a similar position as Bence at Griffith. The Satellites are coming off back-to-back sectional titles, but lost eight starting seniors and 12 seniors overall from the roster. So not only will it be a new start for the coaching staff, but almost every position will be a new start. One bit of good news is that likely No. 1 pitcher Madisyn Walter does have experience, going 10-3 in the circle last season.
Claire Pardo, Andrean — The junior steps into the varsity ranks for the defending 3A state champs with a chance to be the No. 1 starting pitcher. Second-year coach Brooke Baker-Runyon says the circle is open to three girls and Pardo is the newcomer with a high ceiling. “She’s a hard-working, coachable player,” Baker-Runyon said. “She will have every opportunity to prove herself (at pitcher) with us needing to fill that position.”
— Deputy sports editor
Steve T. Gorches