SYRACUSE – Graduation is a happy time for most high school seniors. The opportunity to exit formal school, get out into the world, experience new things, life couldn’t get much better. Graduation for a head coach, on the other hand, is a totally different animal. Ask Wawasee softball manager Mike Barger.
Even as going as far as ‘banging my head against a wall once or twice’, his filling the gaps of nine seniors has become a graduation nightmare for a program that reached an apex a season ago. The Lady Warriors had its best season in program history, finishing 25-4 overall and playing in its first-ever semi-state before losing, 3-0, to South Bend St. Joe in the Class 3-A Elite Eight. The run Wawasee went on, winning the Northern Lakes Conference undefeated for the first time ever, then the Lakeland Sectional and Fort Wayne Concordia Regional championships had the program on Cloud Nine.
Just four returners remain, and just one from its infield core in now junior Graceanne Kerlin. The brick wall behind the plate found herself in quite a position catching two dominant pitchers in Meghan Fretz and Amber Lemberg. The two threw all but 15 of Wawasee’s 190 innings and gave up just 49 runs in 175-plus innings, striking out 201 in the process. Kerlin, who caught 26 games, didn’t make an error in 216 chances and threw out seven runners trying to steal.
“We’ve been looking forward to winning a state title since we’ve got into this program,” Kerlin said. “I feel like that’s why we work so hard in the offseason and play so hard during the season. We want to experience it. Semi-state was huge, but state is bigger than that and we got close. We want to be able to get back to that level and move further.”
Kerlin added 16 hits and 15 RBI in 63 plate appearances, but didn’t have a hit in the final six games she had an at-bat, something she feels she can improve upon.
“I’m working hard so it can change, focusing more on my mechanics to get more hitting time in because I need it,” Kerlin said of her offseason work in the cage. “I feel like we have a lot of good freshman hitters and they know what they are doing. We are tweaking some things to make my hitting better, which can only help the younger girls by my example.”
Joining Kerlin in the returner’s column is lone senior starter Aubrey Kuhn, a speedy outfielder who hit .377 with 24 runs scored and 14 stolen bases. Kuhn, who had quite a finish to her senior basketball season, is one Barger will rely upon to keep his younger kids on track.
“I told Kuhn first day she goes out there she has to wear that broken nose mask thing out there, she tells me no,” said Barger with a laugh of his senior, who broke her nose twice during basketball season. “That’s just the competitor she is. Her leadership will be an absolute asset to this team.”
Junior Faith Swihart (.299, 19 runs) will shift from right field to shortstop, and is noted by Barger as having quick feet and soft hands on defense. Classmate Beth Flannery (.303, six runs) came up with some huge hits down the stretch, including a homer in the sectional win over Lakeland. Flannery could factor into the pitching corps this spring.
Senior Megan Bray, junior Ciandra Ervin and sophomores Grace Allen and Madison Mottern all dressed but did not factor into the varsity much last season.
Where Barger is hoping to reload is with a huge freshman class, seven named to the preseason varsity roster. Kiaundra Olson, Olivia Stuck, Ava Rush and Danielle Jenkins are all listed as pitchers, and with Flannery, Barger noted all of them will get a chance to showcase their talents early. Barger also likes the preseason work from Amanda Jenkins, who could spell Kerlin at catcher or fill one of the missing infield spots. Newcomers Casey Drake and Delaney Hare will also get a long look at filling infield positions.
“I don’t want to pinpoint any of these kids, it’s too soon for that, but when you see some of these kids coming, you are going to think about the Fretz’s, the Lemberg’s, the Haines’, all of them. I see it. Olson, Stuck, Rush, Jenkins, they have it. I see it every day.
“I don’t think we’ll see anyone overpower anyone throwing the ball 60 miles per hour. But they all look good. When you look out there, you’ll see that old group again. It might not be 2018, but in four years, you’ll see it.”
Wawasee will look to its season opener Saturday, March 24, at Westview and its home opener Thursday, March 29, against Elkhart Central. A showdown at home with Fairfield coming back from spring break on April 9 will give his young team a meter stick heading into a busy calendar.
“It’ll be a challenge, but I think I can get these kids to where they need to be by the time spring break comes around,” Barger stated, but quickly pointed out, “coming back with Fairfield, Columbia City, Manchester and Triton, we still have a lot of pieces that we are going to move around. There are a lot of girls who have big shoes to fill, and we can’t expect to just throw 12 runs on the board and beat teams. We have to learn.”