The start of another softball season always brings with it a large range of degrees of optimism from Southwestern Illinois College softball coach Kathy Bernal.
Now, just five days from the start of the 2013 season, Bernal seems "cautiously optimistic" about the Blue Storm's outlook.
"We lost a lot of players to graduation and we've lost two other players because of academics and a third who transferred, who we thought was going to be a key component on our team and part of a very good freshman recruiting class,'' Bernal said. "I still think we can contend for the (Great Rivers Athletic) conference title.
"The keys are that we have to stay healthy and that some of those freshmen are going to have to step up. Judging by what I've seen in the fall, and so far in preseason, I think they can.''
Coming off a 22-24 season and a first-round loss to Kaskaskia College in the Region 24 playoffs, SWIC opens its spring season Monday at St. Louis Community College.
The Blue Storm plays its first home game on March 7 against East Central College, beginning at 2 p.m.
One strength of the Blue Storm should be its pitching staff. Sophomores Jordin Toenjes (Columbia) and Molly Muir (Belleville West) both have had some success at the college level and should combine with freshmen Elexus Lohman (Wesclin) and Megan White (Belleville East) to give SWIC a solid rotation.
When not pitching, the 5-foot-3 Lohman will be in the field.
"When she's not pitching, Elexus will be in the field because of her bat,'' Bernal said. "I like our pitching. Nobody will blow people away by throwing 60-65 mph, but all four of them can locate their pitches.
" I think there is going to be a lot of parity in the conference and I honestly believe we can contend. We need our pitchers to keep us in games and hope that our offense can score some runs.''
One of the players Bernal is hoping will be a key to SWIC's offense is highly touted recruit Jaclyn Elmore from Lebanon.
One of the area's top small-school players last year, Elmore also will anchor the Blue Storm's defense from the catcher's position.
"Jaclyn's got a strong arm and she's a very good defensive player, but she's a very, very good offensive player,'' Bernal said. "I saw her play in high school and then again in the fall. Without swinging hard, the ball just jumps off her bat.''
Freshman Amanda Mitchell (Dupo) will backup Elmore at catcher, but will see the majority of her playing time at third base. Like Elmore, Mitchell is a good hitter with power. Freshman Abigail Fritz (Lebanon), an outfielder in high school, is a good defensive player and will play shortstop. Another option at shortstop could be freshman Mone'y Black from Kokomo, Ind.
A member of the SWIC basketball team, Black was an all-state selection in high school as a shortstop but also will play some outfield.
"We've only got 16 players on our roster and so we're going to move people around to different positions to see what they can do,'' Bernal said. "We're also going to try different combinations in the batting order to see what lineup combinations work best.''
Freshman Tara Hubert (Red Bud) will be solid at second base while three players -- Bailey Setzekorn (Marissa), Erika Laumbattus (New Athens) and Taylor Johnson-Ray (Dupo) -- will split time at first base.
Speedy freshman Katie Weis (Highland) will anchor the outfield in center while batting leadoff.
"Katie's got good speed and she has the ability to track the ball down in the gaps,'' Bernal said. "She's a line-drive hitter who can hit the gaps and makes contact. She can turn a single into a double or triple any time, because with her on second or third with nobody out, we won't have to play small ball and bunt her over.''
Other outfielders include Ashley Slaton (Belleville East), Aubrie Williams (Mascoutah), Mika Moss (Litchfield) and Elizabeth Kromray (Granite City).
Bernal said she's been pleased with the Blue Storm's team chemistry and hopes her team will be able to play a few games next week before opening conference play in two weeks.