Oconto Falls softball team is young but experienced

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Panthers return four starters
By: 

Greg Bates, Times Herald correspondent

A youth movement is in full swing for the Oconto Falls High School softball team.

The Panthers have a young roster this season, but it’s an experienced group of players.

“It’s a young group when you look at it on paper. But they’re all going to step up, and they’ve all had some varsity experience,” coach Cory Albrecht said. “They might not have been our starters. But even though they’re young, they’re probably going to be improved from last year.

“Everything is looking really good. Our chemistry is right where we want it.”

The players are feeling confident this season they can improve off a 9-15 record a year ago.

“We’re ready – our practices have been super enthusiastic,” senior Stephanie Peitersen said. “We kind of have a younger team, with only three seniors. But we have six juniors, and everyone shows so much enthusiasm and leadership. Everyone’s really stepped it up this year. We’re ready to really go far.”

Coach Albrecht isn’t worried about his team’s youth.

“They’re mentally tough. They’re taking on challenges,” Albrecht said. “Some of them were brought up in other sports as sophomores to play on varsity, so the lights aren’t going to be too bright for them. I’m not concerned one bit with our youth. I actually think it’s going to be a benefit for us.”

Albrecht is in his second season as head coach after one year as the assistant.

“It’s to the point where we have some continuity with everybody – I know who they are; they know who I am,” Albrecht said. “It’s working out well.”

This year’s team is a tight-knit group that has mostly played together for seven to eight years. That closeness between even the upperclassmen and underclassmen should help team chemistry.

According to Peitersen, the players are more inseparable this season than a year ago.

“We just needed to be closer as a team, and I think we’re really done that through summer ball and a lot of team bonding,” Peitersen said. “I think that we’re just a well-working machine this year.”

Five starters from last season graduated. That paves the way for four returning starters, who provide a good base of talent and leadership for the young players.

The team’s success will rely heavily on its pitching. The Panthers have a pair of good pitchers in junior Katelyn Albrecht and sophomore Haley Bell. The duo split time last season in the circle, and whichever player isn’t pitching is starting at shortstop.

“Those two are looking really, really good pitching,” Albrecht said, adding both girls went through a 14-week pitching program to gain strength, speed and control. “We’re thinking that’s going to be a really good 1-2 punch with those two.”

Said Peitersen: “We’ve been hitting off them live, and they’ve been really showing us all their different pitches they have and really throwing us the heat.”

Josie Tolzman, a junior in her third year on varsity, will also earn some time pitching and play second baseman. Peitersen returns as the team’s starting first baseman.

It’s big that the Panthers have three-quarters of their starting infield back. That should provide the pitchers – who aren’t overpowering, strikeout throwers – a little confidence behind them.

“The first week of practice we did some infield, and I told the girls, ‘This is night and day from what we had last year,’” Albrecht said. “We’re just that much more confident. We know what’s going on, and we look in midseason form the first week of practice. Now we can just kind of get away from doing fundamental stuff, and we can move into a little bit more advanced stuff and nitpick on their fundamentals.”

Oconto Falls will round out its infield with Alyson Fabry at third base. Last season as a freshman, coach Albrecht called up Fabry to varsity since she showed some pop with her bat on the junior varsity squad.

At catcher, Emma Huberty steps into the position after steady Virginia Misco graduated.

The Panthers should have a strong outfield with senior Amanda Zahm in center field. Olivia Steffens, another senior, will be in right field, and Sam Shallow will see some time there as well. In left field, Kaelyn Allen has a strong arm.

Coach Albrecht is going to rely on his defense this season because his offense has been known to struggle.

“It all trickles down from the top,” Albrecht said. “If a couple of girls get hot, it gets contagious and the other girls get more confidence coming to the plate. The approach we took this year in our preseason practices, our indoor practices, of getting into the cage against live hitting … I see our hitting being a little bit better than we were last year with a lot more pop. I think that we’ll win some games that are going to be 1-0, 2-0. But then the next night, we might be winning 11-5 or something like that or losing 12-11, depending on how our pitching is going. It’s one of those things that’s a hit or miss with us.”

The North Eastern Conference should be strong again this season. Albrecht believes Denmark (13-5 last year), Luxemburg-Casco (14-2) and reigning champion Freedom (16-2) will be at the top of the standings. Marinette also could be tough.

Albrecht is hoping his team can place anywhere between third to fifth place in the conference race.

“We’re not setting our goals real low this year,” Albrecht said. “When we set our goals low, that’s the kind of effort we’re going to get out of it. We never want to put our goals down at the bottom of the conference; we’re always looking up. It may be a little bit aggressive at times with a young group, but that’s the kind of mentality we’re going in with is to try to make it towards the upper half of the conference.”

“I have super high expectations of going really far this year,” Peitersen said. “Definitely better than last year. I really have a lot of faith in us that we can go far in tournament time. Our record this year is going to be pretty great.”

Albrecht noted that coaches in the conference know that Oconto Falls has some talent on its roster, but the players are young. Not so fast — the Panthers say they could do some damage.

“I think early on, we’ll definitely surprise a few teams,” Albrecht said. “Our mentality is kind of, ‘Why not us?’ We give all our effort. Just because of our youth, any given day we can win a softball game.”

GILLETT HIGH SCHOOL

Head coach: Mike Umentum

Last season: 6-14, 3-11 Marinette & Oconto Conference

Key athletes lost: Myranda Pratsch, outfield; Greta Sleeter, outfield; Victoria Loberger, infield.

Key returning athletes: Taylor Yonker, senior infielder; Faith Sorlie, senior infielder; Sydney Young, sophomore pitcher; Angel Griffin, junior infielder; Annie Kohls, sophomore infielder.

Coach’s comments: “This year, we will have to replace the whole outfield and some infield positions. We have 17 girls (six upperclassmen) this year, so we will start some less experienced girls in some of the outfield spots. So this year will be a lot of learning for them, but most of them have played for me in both little league and Babe Ruth, so I know them and what they can do. With only three seniors, the underclassmen will have to step into starting roles.

“Wausaukee, Coleman and Lena/STAA all return senior pitchers. Those games will be a challenge and should be good games. Crivitz will also be a good battle for us. Playing Bonduel, Southern Door and Menominee Indians in non-conference games will help us get ready for post-season play.”