Blythewood has had a difficult transition to the Class 4A level this school year in most sports, but the Bengal softball team may be the exception to the rule.
Bucky Ware’s still young but experienced team makes the jump to big-school status this spring with the idea of challenging perennial Midlands power Spring Valley for the Region 4-4A pennant.
“We know our (new) region will be difficult,” said Ware. “Spring Valley has about a 15-year streak of winning its region, and we're in there with them for the first time. Lancaster has always had quality teams, and I expect Ridge View to be a surprise team. We don't know much about Rock Hill or South Pointe, but I would expect them to be competitive. We definitely don't have any games where we can just show up, not play well and win.”
The Bengals, who welcome back seven starters from a team that went 24-7, won the Region 4-3A championship with a 14-0 record and advanced to the Upper State tournament, have more than a region championship at the new level in mind.
“We think we're to the point now where we should be in the discussion for state championships year in and year out, even though we know the 4A Upper State is ridiculously tough,” said Ware.
“Our strengths are definitely our experience. We also like our offensive mix of speed and hitters, and feel like the bottom of our order is as good as anyone's.”
Juniors Kelly Owens, Paige Owczarczak, Paige Hartfield and Hillary Stewart, and senior Megan Marsh are the veteran leaders. Owens, Owczakczak and Hartfield have all been starters for three seasons, Stewart and Marsh for two.
Owens, a returning All-State player and a NFCA All-South selection, will join Marsh as the foundation of the pitching rotation. Owens, a southpaw, was 6-1 with a 0.68 ERA last season, walking only four batters in 51.1 innings of work. She was even batter with a bat in her hands. Owens, a first baseman when not in the circle, batted .526 with a an eye-opening 1.154 OPS (a combination of a .577 on-base percentage and a .814 slugging percentage). She had 39 runs scored, 31 RBIs and was 37-for-38 in steals, not to mention belting seven doubles and nine triples.
Owczarczak and Hartfield are both back for their four season at the middle infield spots – second base andshortstop, respectively. Owczarczak hit .383 while increasing her slugging percentage in 2008, scored 30 runs and was 16-for-18 in steals. Hartfield had career-high totals in batting average (.356), hits (31), runs scored (33), RBIs (39) and steals (23) last season.
Stewart makes a big move defensively from third base to catcher to fill the void at the key catcher spot with the departure of Nicole Roundtree. Stewart had a breakout season at the plate in 2008 – batting .376 with a .922 OPS, 24 runs and 29 RBIs. Marsh was 13-4 with a 2.18 ERA in 112.1 innings of work with 129 strikeouts. Offensively, Marsh batted .269 with 13 RBIs.
Starting outfielders Tiffany Harris and Jennifer Jameson also return. Harris, a junior, had an outstanding season in her varsity debut in center field – batting .322 with a .988 OPS, 19 runs, a team-high 42 RBIs, a team-high three home runs, and 54 total bases. Jameson, a senior, is back in right field and looking to improve on her .227 batting average.
The new faces in the mix include eight-grader Bailey Newman in left field and junior Katie McKinney at third base. Newman saw action as a varsity reserve last season, while McKinney is up from the junior varsity. Eight-grader Ellen Cordova will play in the outfield and get a chance to do a little pitching behind Marsh and Owens.
Seventh-grader Lori Owens and junior Laury Jackson provide depth in the infield and outfield.
Ware is justifiably proud of his players’ academic achievements, as well. Blythewood’s 2008 team posted a cumulative 3.744 GPA a year ago, which earned it national recognition. The Bengals were 14th in the national rankings conducted by the National Fastpitch Coaches Association.
Jameson, Hartfield, Newman, Owczarczak, Owens and Stewart all finished at 3.5 or higher, thus earning All-American Scholar Athlete status from NFCA along for departed seniors Jordan Banks and Nicole Roundtree.
Blythewood opens the season on March 11 at South Florence.