Creston head softball coach Mike McCabe knows his team exceeded expectations last year. Now, he wants to see if his team can do it again this year.
“Last year, we were sitting here in a position where a lot of the conference teams thought we were going to take a step back,” McCabe said. “I told them, you kind of put yourself in a bad spot this year. What we did last year is let them know we’re still here, still someone to be reckoned with.
“It’s not going to come easy this year,” he continued. “They know they’re going to have to play good softball like we have been. With those expectations come some responsibilities with work ethic. Our work ethic needs to exceed our expectations.”
The Panthers went 19-17 overall last year and finished fourth in the Hawkeye 10 Conference. Creston loses just one senior from that team in Mackenzie Andresen.
Coming back are four all-conference players in juniors Hayley LaMasters (first team), Natalie Mostek (second team) and sophomores Taylor Briley (first team) and Josie Sickels (honorable mention).
LaMasters went 18-15 as starting pitcher last year for the Panthers with a 3.30 earned run average. She also hit .355 with 31 runs batted in. Mostek led the team with 36 RBI while hitting .389. Briley led the Panthers with a .450 average and drove in 29 runs.
“I think Hayley, the experience she got last year will be big for her,” McCabe said. “I think she knows she’s capable of being the No. 1 pitcher for the team. Natalie had a nice year for us offensively and defensively. Taylor’s a good little player. She’ll be important for us. Josie Sickels had a nice first varsity campaign.”
The middle of the Panther defense is strong, with LaMasters and Mostek in the battery, backed up by Briley at shortstop, sophomore Shelby Palser at second base and Josie Sickels in center field.
“Shelby was a regular for us last year, especially toward the end of the season,” McCabe said. “She’s just a gamer. I expect a good year out of Shelby. I like her at second base. She’s got a good glove.”
Joining Josie Sickels in the outfield will be twin sister Jami in left field and a returning Alyssa Higgins in right field.
Higgins was injured against Clarke early last year and missed the remainder of the season.
“I’m very confident with Josie in the outfield, as I am with her sister in left,” McCabe said. “I have a lot of confidence when the ball is in the air. Alyssa Higgins comes back into right field. She’s come back full speed. The times we’ve had her here at practice, she hasn’t missed a beat in the outfield. She’s anxious to get back.”
A pair of new faces could make its impact on the Panther lineup, especially early in the season.
Sophomore Alli Thomsen is back out after not playing last year. McCabe said he expects her to be able to help out.
“She can play a lot of different positions,” he said. “She may get a chance to play first base early in the year.”
Freshman Lexie Little is another player who will be vying for playing time. With junior Brenna Baker sidelined for the beginning of the season after undergoing knee surgery, Little will have an opportunity to step into the lineup.
“Lexie Little, a freshman, very athletic,” McCabe said. “She’s going to be a good player for us. I see her as a varsity player. She can play multiple positions. She may play third base while Brenna is laid up.”
Freshman Hannah Hood, who McCabe projected to help out the varsity team this year, will not be able to play after having surgery on her shoulder.
This year’s Panther team will still be young, but it won’t be lacking experience after last year’s team was comprised of mostly freshmen and sophomores.
“It’s kind of interesting, we’re young,” McCabe said. “We won’t lose anyone. Obviously, we kind of look at our three juniors who have the most experience — Hayley, Natalie and Brenna. We’ll look to them for leadership.”
McCabe said those three players can guide the younger players on the team, as they went through a similar situation being thrust into playing time early in their careers.
“I think that will be a help,” McCabe said.
Baker is currently working with the team and doing what she can, but McCabe said he won’t rush her back into playing time after the knee surgery.
“We’re in the position now of better safe than sorry,” he said. “We’re not going to rush anything. She’s got a lot of summer left to play some ball and other things down the line, too. She’s doing what she can.”
The experience the younger players got last year will also be a big help this year, McCabe said.
“You see kids’ confidence growing, knowing the routine a little better,” he said. “I expect a lot of that experience a lot of those kids got last year will be big for them this year, if we use it the right way. That’s not taking it for granted and continue to work to get better.”
According to McCabe, last year’s conference champion Harlan and runner-up Glenwood will be strong once again this year.
Lewis Central and Dension-Schleswig, along with the Panthers, are other teams that could find their way into the conference title race.
“I said it last year, and I’ll say it again, a lot of those middle teams — Atlantic, Clarinda — I expect to have a nice year. They (Clarinda) really came on toward the end. Night in and night out, it’s a pretty good conference.”
The Panthers open the season Monday at home against Southwest Valley.
Varsity and JV roster
(* — returning letterwinner)
Juniors — Hayley LaMasters*, Natalie Mostek*, Brenna Baker*.
Sophomores — Taylor Briley*, Shelby Palser*, Alyssa Higgins*, Jami Sickels*, Josie Sickels*, Alli Thomsen.
Freshmen — Lexie Little, Aleisha Larkin, Cammy Rutherford, Mattie Wheeler, Morgan Shawler, Hannah Fogle, Morghan Frey, Hannah Hood.
8th-grade — Chloe Hagle.
May 26 — vs. Southwest Valley, 5:30 p.m.
May 29 — vs. Lewis Central (doubleheader), 5:30 p.m.
May 30 — vs. Clarke, 4 p.m.
June 2 — at Glenwood, 5:30 p.m.
June 3 — vs. Clarinda, 5:30 p.m.
June 5 — vs. Harlan (doubleheader), 5:30 p.m.
June 7 — at Atlantic Tournament, TBD
June 9 — at Shenandoah, 5:30 p.m.
June 12 — vs. Kuemper Catholic (doubleheader), 5:30 p.m.
June 13 — John Stephens Classic, TBD
June 14 — John Stephens Classic, TBD
June 16 — vs. Red Oak, 5:30 p.m.
June 17 — vs. Glenwood, 5:30 p.m.
June 19 — at Denison-Schleswig (doubleheader), 5:30 p.m.
June 21 — at Oskaloosa Tournament, TBD
June 23 — at Clarinda, 5:30 p.m.
June 24 — vs. Shenandoah, 5:30 p.m.
June 26 — vs. Council Bluffs St. Albert (doubleheader), 5:30 p.m.
June 28 — at Cedar Rapids Jefferson Tournament, TBD
July 1 — at Red Oak, 5:30 p.m.
July 3 — at Atlantic, 5:30 p.m.
July 7 — at Winterset, 5:30 p.m.
July 10 — Regionals, TBD
July 12 — Regional semifinals, TBD
July 15 — Regional finals, TBD
July 21-25 — State Tournament, TBD