The Belleville East Lancers embarked on a new softball season minus nine seniors who took part in 48 wins over the last two seasons.
That list includes two pitchers, the metro-east’s second-leading base stealer, and a stalwart middle infield that was among the best in the Southwestern Conference.
Yet, 11th-year coach Natalie Peters opened spring practices with surprisingly few unsettled questions. She’s seen this team coming for years and knows it will be competitive.
“We have our camp where we meet a lot of kids, and we have the Junior Lancer program. To watch the kids grow up as players is pretty special,” Peter said. “It’s exciting when they are older and able to contribute as varsity players. This is a really good group.”
While there may be changes to the roster, there is no lack of experience.
The Lancers won’t be as deep in the pitcher’s circle as they were in 2016 with the loss of Tori Lonsdale and Angela Vanderpluym.
“Last year it felt like the first time since I’ve been here that we had a staff of three,” Peters said. “That doesn’t happen very often.”
But Kristine Bettis is back. The junior emerged as the Lancers’ ace midway through last season and contributed a 12-6 record with a 1.79 ERA in 125 innings pitched.
“She’s been huge for us,” Peter said. “Kristina is one of the most athletic kids I’ve ever seen. ... She got got better and better as the year went on, and that just comes from confidence and maturity.”
Sophomore Alyssa Krausz and senior Tori McKinney also will see plenty of innings inside the circle. Both pitched well on the junior-varsity team last year.
Third baseman Jessica Belzer is a third-year starter and a recognized leader among her Lancer teammates. She hit .426 as an all-conference player last spring. She scored 33 runs and drove in 23.
“Jess has been amazing for us her whole career,” Peters said. “Everybody calls her the mama of the team because she tends to take care of and help everybody. When you think of Jess, you think of consistency.”
Catcher Alex Boze is a third-year starter, too, though she’s just a junior. The Missouri State University commit hit .346 last season with a .412 on-base percentage. She also had nine doubles, a triple, a home run, and a team best 25 RBIs.
Senior Amanda Dermody (.316, .374 on-base, 18 RBI) returns as arguably the best defensive center fielder in the conference. Her three home runs led the team, and her .500 slugging percentage were second only to Belzer’s .508 among the Lancer starters.
“Boze and Dermody both had very strong seasons for us, and we’re hoping for better things from them offensively,” Peters said. “They give us a lot of strength up the middle defensively.”
Finally, junior Kendall Patton, last season’s starter at first, will slide over to her natural position to replace Brooke Laidley at second base.
Sophomore Jackie Belzer takes on the task of replacing departed three-year starter Lindsey Mossman at shortstop. Kraus can help at shortstop, too.
“They are both strong shortstops and good hitters,” Peters said. “Kraus can play a lot of positions for us. Jackie is predominantly a shortstop and has done a really good job catching on in the preseason. She has a lot of maturity about her.”
Senior Ally Blomberg, who was limited to 30 plate appearances after suffering a season-ending knee injury, still hit .318 with and scored nine runs. She’ll take over in left field.
The only open positions are first base and right field. Both starters at those positions in Thursday’s season-opening win over Triad distinguished themselves.
McKinney recorded 10 putouts at first base — three of them unassisted — with four assists. Her spot in the batting order was taken by designated player Jasmine Poore. Savanna Watts, in right field, had a single, a run-scoring sacrifice fly and ended the game with a nice back-handed running catch on a line drive over her head.
Junior Rachel Holtman will compete for time in the outfield, and Mackynzee Dalle, another junior, is a versatile enough defender to contribute inning almost anywhere.
In just 12 varsity at-bats last season, Poore doubled twice, tripled, scored three runs and drove home another. She went 2 for 2 with three runs scored, an RBI and a walk in Thursday’s opener.
“Jasmine can play first, third and outfield,” Peter said.