Times Sports Editor
The Clay City softball program reached rarefied air last season when they finished as the regional runner-up last year and claimed a sectional championship. After graduating just three members of that team and returning both halves of its battery, hopes are high again this season for the Eels.
Nineteen wins, a berth in the regional championship and a 1-0 loss in 13 innings to the eventual state runner-up would seem to give the Eels the spot as a favorite in its sectional, but all the other teams return key components as well.
What it all adds up to is a meat grinder of a conference schedule and sectional slate. But coach Roger Rhodes is preparing his team for the battle by adding two top-flight tourneys to the Eels' schedule.
"We'll be playing in tourneys at Gibson Southern and Clinton Prairie," said Rhodes in his second-year with the Eels. "We'll get to play better competition. Gibson Southern is one of the better 3A teams and Clinton Prairie is usually ranked too."
In fact, Gibson Southern is ranked eighth in the-preseason poll and the Gophers are 14th according to the coaches' poll. There are plenty of other tough teams on the Eels' schedule with North Daviess ranked 10th in Class A, Turkey Run is 13th and both White River Valley and Riverton Parke are each receiving votes.
Last year the Eels might have been a year ahead of schedule by taking a marathon 1-0 win over White River Valley in the sectional title game. A 15-inning victory sent Clay City to the regional where they beat Turkey Run 5-2 before a narrow loss to Tecumseh.
The Eels graduated Chelsee Gerber, now playing at Saint Mary-of-the-Woods, Kendra Roe and Danielle Schindler.
Gerber started in centerfield, Roe at third base and Schindler at second, so finding players to step in to fill those spots is the first order of business, but Rhodes feels his team is in a good position thus far.
"There's some spots we're still looking to fill," said Rhodes. "We're going to move some players around and we have some players hoping to move up."
"We're further along than this time last year," commented Rhodes. "We've got six seniors and this is it for them and I think they know that. The (pre-season) raking is nice, but it doesn't mean much."
Rhodes was referring to the Eels' pre-season No. 6 ranking in Class A, which will cement the target on the Eels' backs early this year.
Returning this year are seniors Angie Camp, Chelsea Hane, Emily Reed, Kayla Baumgartner and Kayla Withrow and Mardi Steiner.
Camp, who has signed to play at Olney Central next season, is one half of the battery that frustrated opposing hitters last year.
The senior catcher hit over .400 last year and slugged .700 percent with a team-high three home runs an d10 doubles with a team-high 31 RBI.
"Angie is a big leader for us," said Rhodes. "Emily (Reed) will be a leader too along with the other four seniors."
Sophomore Shelby Targett had an outstanding freshman year for Clay City last year, winning 17 games in a 17-3 year with 200 strikeouts in 152 innings while compiling a sparkling 0.69 ERA.
After another year of playing against some of the best the country has to offer in travel softball, Rhodes believes Targett can be as good or better in 2008.
"I think she's smarter," said Rhodes of his sophomore hurler. "Playing against that competition she knows you just can't blow it by everyone. I think she's in better shape than last year too."
Targett was big at the plate too, hitting .372 with two home runs and 24 RBI and slugging .526.
Targett will have Tasha Collenbaugh to give her a break on the mound as well as play first base for the Eels.
Rhodes mentioned that he'd like to get Collenbaugh some more time on the mound this year to build the team's depth in the circle.
"We're going to try and get Tasha some more (pitching) time," mentioned Rhodes. "She was 3-1 and you always need depth in case something happens."
Collenbaugh, a junior this year, also hit .286 while leading the team in walks and getting on base at a 42 percent clip.
Another leader for the Eels is Reed, who is the returning and hit at a .296 clip with 11 RBI and 15 runs scored.
Baumgartner is the team's leading returning hitter after ripping opposing hurlers at a .463 clip with a .506 on-base average and scoring 25 times.
Hane will be expected to move up to take over for one of the graduated seniors, in this, her final year with Clay City.
"We're looking for her to really step up," said Rhodes. "Mardi (Steiner) played a heck of a defensive game in the regional and we're hoping she can get her bat going."
Hane got 51 at-bats last year and hit at a .294 average and Steiner hit .208 for the Eels last year and could give the team a big offensive lift if she can increase her average.
Fighting for spots on the varsity this year will be Miranda Jackson, Sloan Miller, Alison Carroll, Stephanie Granger and Karen Treadway.
The Eels open their season when they travel to North Knox on April 3.