BELLEVILLE — For Belleville East's nine seniors, most of whom grew up playing softball in the Junior Lancers summer program, their time has arrived.
"It's really weird for me because I've known most of them since they were 8 or 9 years ago," said East coach Natalie Peters, whose team opens the 2014 season on the road against the Triad Knights on Thursday. "It's amazing that they are now all 17 or 18 and headed off into the world here after this year.
"I think this core group of kids has really positive attitudes and they work really, really hard. They just want that success. I think last year was a big turning point for us, and I think our seniors had a big part in that. Hopefully this group just carries that on, that competitive edge."
The Lancers lost three key players -- center fielder Kayla Fields, third baseman Brittany Hodge and left fielder Katie Belleville -- to graduation from a squad that went 30-8, won the program's first regional championship since 2007 and advanced to the sectional championship before losing to Normal West.
Those three players accounted for 112 runs scored, 98 RBIs and 102 stolen bases last season.
"Between the three of them, it ended up being a really big loss for us in production even though we didn't lose a ton of seniors as far as numbers go," Peters said. "(They were) very big pieces of the puzzle."
The Lancers bring back senior pitcher Alison Mitts, who had a 25-9 record with a 1.47 ERA last season.
"It's always nice when you have a pitcher coming back who has a ton of experience, and Alison definitely has that," Peters said. "She threw a few varsity games as a freshman and she's pretty much been our workhorse since her sophomore year."
The backup pitchers are sophomores Angela VanderPluym and Tori Lonsdale, a transfer from Althoff.
Mitts also was a major factor at the plate last season for the Lancers as she batted .477 with four homers and 41 RBIs.
"Her hitting just exploded last year," Peters said. "We always knew she had the potential to be that kind of offensive threat, and I think everything just clicked for her last year. She was really comfortable with her stance, and she has a great eye at the plate, which probably comes from her pitching experience and knowing how to pick up spins."
The Lancers have three senior catchers in Haley Gegelman, Danielle Hendricks and Andrea Roberts.
Gegelman, who batted .333 with 30 RBIs, and Hendricks, handled most of the catching chores last season. Roberts played shortstop last season.
"A lot of people don't know that Andrea Roberts is a great catcher, and that's one of her most natural positions," Peters said of Roberts, who batted .393 with 10 doubles and 27 RBIs last season. "We're going to be able to give her some time back there this year."
Junior Annie Eversman returns at first base and Haley Wroten returns at second base.
Eversman batted .310 with 17 RBIs last year, while Wroten batted .415 with 26 RBIs last season.
"Haley was awesome for us last year both offensively and defensively," Peters said of Wroten, who is headed to Northern Illinois
Gegelman and senior Amanda Campbell also have been working at first base.
Campbell, who had 12 RBIs in limited at-bats last year, also could used as a designated player as a way of her getting strong bat into the lineup.
Sophomore Lindsay Mossman will step up from junior varsity squad to handle the duties at shortstop this season.
"She has a ton of just natural athletic ability," Peters said. "She's going to be really good. We'll try to work the nerves out of her in the first part of the season and let her get settled in."
Third base is up in the air with Hendricks, Roberts and Eversman vying for playing time.
"We're looking for someone who can pick up bunts and get outs," Peters said. "That's probably the biggest thing we need out of that position."
Senior Ryley Blomberg returns in the outfield. Blomberg, who has been stellar defender in right field, could also see some time in center field.
Junior Tawnee Kramer, who has been the Lancers' center fielder on the junior varsity level the past two years, senior Erinn Henry, senior Mackenzie Vollmer, junior Brianna Batson and sophomore Rebecca Dahm all are in the mix for playing time in the outfielder.
Hendricks and Roberts also are capable of playing in the outfield.
Contact reporter Steve Korte at email@example.com or 239-2522.