Pitching is a cornerstone of fast pitch softball.
The 2021 squads at Fauquier, Kettle Run and Liberty all seemingly can rely on more than one arm to carry them through the condensed 12-game season.
Totally missing the 2020 season due to the COVID-19 pandemic has left numerous lineup questions that will exist for more than a week until the coaches see their units and others on the fields.
Possibly the highest local preseason expectations lie with the Fauquier.
Coach Erika Lamper, her staff and close followers openly espoused their hopes for a state Class 4 title in 2020. They pointed to four strong seniors and a bevy of talented younger players as the basis for the hopes.
The seniors, of course, have departed, two playing at Division II schools in Pennsylvania, yet Lamper has high expectations again.
"I do," she admitted. "I thought we would be missing a lot of pieces, but this is a strong group. We are very fortunate. Just when I think 'Oh man. We lost four starters,' they keep coming back stronger and stronger."
Lamper believes the Falcons will present a varied and potent attack, adding leadership and communication also have been quite evident since practice began.
As for the important pitching element, she has senior Meghan Harrington, who returns for her fourth year in the circle. The Princeton University signee earned first-team all-Northwestern District honors as a sophomore. Harrington also will play first base when not pitching.
Ten of the 14 players have previous varsity experience.
In addition to Harington, returnees senior Emma Carter, juniors Payton Swart, Helena Lovell, Meredith Wayland, Haley Saulsbury, Izzy Evans and Skye Corum and sophomores Mikayla Gilmore and Katie Harrington. The newcomers are sophomores Erin Irvin and Brooke Owens and freshmen April Belcher and Brooke Belcher
Carter and Swart are multi-year infield starters, Wayland returns in centerfield and Lovell moves from the outfield to catcher. Corum gives Fauquier a strong No. 2 hurler when she is not at third base. Saulbury and Katie Harrington also may pitch.
"In a quarantine, who knows what can happen?" Lamper said, thankful for the quality depth.
As for keys to the lofty hopes. Lamper said it is a matter of assembling the various pieces in a cogent manner.
"All these girls have so many strengths, so it's finding the way to put it all together," she said
"It's always a tough battle in the district. We have to remain poised...play for the love of the game," Lamper added about the approach she hopes will minimize pressure.
Liberty coach Chris Leatherman has the most varsity experienced hurlers in the county this spring as the foundation.
"We are fortunate enough to have three experienced pitchers that will get a lot of time in the circle this season," Leatherman said.
Seniors Taylor Smith will play at Shenandoah University and Roni Nickerson at Greensboro College. The Eagles also have junior Katelynn Lewis in a deep rotation.
The Eagles also have two other varsity returnees in the fold in senior Keely Crane and junior Kileigh Hash. That is the smallest number of veterans among the county schools, but Leatherman says the number is deceiving. "Thankfully, the majority of these kids play year round and are accustomed to high level softball," he pointed out.
Sophomores Lauren Leatherman, Isabelle Cavins and Abby Walker are varsity newcomers, as are freshmen Lauren Smith, Rileigh Greer, Lauren Dean, Nora Duncan, Brooklyn Mauro and Lyla Hubbard.
Most teams are opening their regular seasons this week with unanswered questions due to the shortened preparation time, but Leatherman feels Liberty's picture is coming into focus despite the influx of newcomers.
"As with every season, it will take a couple games to get everything worked out," Leatherman offered. "But I have a good idea on where we stand.
"This is uncharted waters not being able to have scrimmages and normal practice times, but I am happy to be back on the field, and feel confident with the team we have assembled.
"My main goal for this season is to keep these kids healthy and complete the season as planned," he concluded.
Kettle Run softball coach Tori Hill is happy to be on the softball field.
After losing the 2020 campaign to the pandemic, and despite having a truncated season this spring, she sees glimmers of hope.
"This will be a whirlwind of a season," Hill admits. "But considering the unique circumstances of this season, I am happy with where our team is right now.
"We have a lot of girls that are either brand new to the program or returning after last year’s very short season," Hill said, expecting the team will experiment early in the season to determine the best lineup.
Hill added the past two weeks have answered some of the questions, and there is one sizable advantage over past seasons. "One perk of having the season start later is we’ve had warmer weather and more time outside on the field than we’ve had in years past when starting in February," she said.
Kettle Run has 10 varsity returnees in Abby Boldt, Ashley Hume, Kylie Wilkerson, Emory Shorts, Lauren Chisarik, Kaley Frazier, Celine Jenkins, Delaney Lail, Ashley Mitchem, Jillian Brunton and Jules Thomas. Other varsity players include Jillian Brunton and Jillian Brunton.
Boldt was a first-team all-Northwestern District outfielder in 2019, and Hume and Wilkerson provide a solid pitching punch.
"We have some promising young talent that I’m excited about this season," Hill stressed. "We will have to learn our strengths and weaknesses on the fly and make adjustments quickly."
With only 12 players, the Cougars will use an unusual arrangement this spring, Hill said. Several members of the 12-girl junior varsity squad may act as floaters in case of injury or COVID-19 issues.
"We’re grateful to have a season and want to make this most of it," she said. "Just focusing on working hard, having fun, and winning one game at a time."