By Greg Bates
Times Press sports correspondent
The last five seasons, pitching has been the staple of Shiocton softball as the program has amassed a 96-26 record.
The Chiefs rode hurlers Sydney Wilcox for four years and Gabby Gunderson last year, but this season is a changing of the guard of sorts. Cassidy Defferding steps in as the ace after logging 40 2/3 innings last season as the No. 2 behind Gunderson. Defferding will be relied on heavily after Shiocton lost four extremely valuable players to graduation a year ago.
“I think defense is going to be our thing,” Shiocton senior catcher Leigha Young said. “My whole high school career, I think our softball team has been best defensively and that’s kind of how we are. I think that’s what’s going to get us our wins.”
Pitching and defense are going to have to be Shiocton’s main means to winning games this season after some big sticks left the lineup.
Second-year coach Dawn Kanaman is looking forward to building a stout defense.
“I don’t foresee hopefully not a lot of runs scored against us as long as we can do our job behind Cassidy,” Kanaman said.
Along with Gunderson, Shiocton lost all-everything shortstop Tina Ubl, second baseman Jackie Korth and Trina Young to graduation.
“I think that even though we did lose them and they were very experienced, a lot of players that we have are juniors and they’ve had a lot of work during JV and practice,” Leigha Young said. “Even though they don’t have the game experience, they’ll have the playing experience like working with the team.”
The junior class is a good one with Defferding, Kellyn Van Straten, Aly Durham, Taylir Schmidt and Carley Kriewaldt. But it will be the team’s two seniors, Young and Erica Gassner, who will be huge parts of this season’s success.
“Leigha is going into her fourth year now and she’s had to really grow fast,” Kanaman said. “We threw her in as a freshman against Sydney Wilcox, and we all know what Sydney’s capable of doing. It was a fast learning curve for her but you can just see the improvement in her every year. Because she’s behind the plate and Erica’s in center, those are two key spots for infield and outfield. You’re looking for them to lead the girls all around them.”
As a senior, Leigha Young knows she needs to provide plenty of leadership to the young players on the team.
“Positivity because I think our team gets down on itself a lot, not really on each other but it brings the whole mood down,” Young said. “Cheering each other on and making the mood light so we can actually enjoy it.”
Replacing two key cogs in the middle infield will be difficult as Ubl and Korth were as reliable as they come.
“That is probably our biggest focus right now is on the two middle infield positions for sure,” Kanaman said. “In fact, we’re probably going to have a whole different dynamic possibly when the first game rolls around.”
Kanaman is looking at possibly moving Gassner from center field to shortstop because she has great arm strength and speed. Sophomore Emily Korth was trying to work her way into the starting second baseman spot, but an injury while swinging a bat in the first practice of the season could keep her out for a while. Kanaman is still searching for options at second base and Van Straten, who started at third base last season, could shift over to the opposite side of the diamond.
“We focused on the left side of the field with Gabby and Trina at short, and this year, I think we’re going to focus more on right side and put our gal with the range over there at second base,” Kanaman said. “Jackie Korth was pretty big shoes to fill, that girl could get to everything. We’re looking for somebody like that again and we thought we possibly had that in Emily. But with her injury we’ve got to rethink things and I think Kellyn is a really strong candidate for that position with her range.”
Whomever is behind Defferding, they are going to see an improved pitcher. Kanaman has watched Defferding have really good control of her pitches after walking too many batters last season.
“She’s always had speed ever since coming up through the youth program because I coached her when she was younger, too,” Kanaman said. “She always had the speed, it was just she needed the accuracy and now she’s pretty dialed in on that. She’s putting it all together now and her hitting is coming around a lot.”
Leigha Young has been Defferding’s battery mate since the pair was little. Young has watched the right-hander up her game, especially after so many years watching two solid pitchers in Wilcox and Gunderson. Last season, Defferding went 4-2 with a 1.89 earned run average and 45 strikeouts.
“She’s been practicing a lot and working really hard and I think she’s improved a lot since last year,” Young said. “I think that she’s definitely going to be bringing it.”
Shiocton, which finished 13-4 last season, has some other nice pieces back this season with Schmidt at first base, Durham in right field and Kriewaldt as a utility.
There are four freshmen on this year’s squad and Kanaman believes Brooklyn Kleiber, who has a strong arm and good bat, and Larissa Young, who will be Defferding’s backup in the circle, will be key contributors.
Offensively, Shiocton will need to replace some big bats in the lineup. The top two hitters, Korth and Gunderson, combined for 35 hits and 28 RBI. Gassner (.300 batting average) and Leigha Young (.283) were tied for third on the team last season with 15 hits apiece and tallied 18 total RBI. Defferding was 9-for-29 for the year with eight runs driven in.
“I think Cassidy is going to step up this year and I’m hoping Leigha has a bounce back year,” Kanaman said. “She had a little bit of a slide there junior year hitting wise but she’s really focused on trying to improve that as well.”
Early in practices, Kanaman has been impressed with the hitting of sophomore Caryl Herb and Van Straten.
Shiocton is coming off a second-place finish in the Central Wisconsin Conference-East standings with a 10-2 mark. Weyauwega-Fremont took home the crown with its only conference loss coming at the hands of Shiocton.
“A lot of (teams) lost a lot last year,” Kanaman said. “The Akeys are finally gone now out of Weyauwega and I believe their head coach left as well, so they’re going to be starting out fresh. But I would suspect that we will be right there near the top along with Iola and Amherst are going to be the teams that give us the most run for our money.”
The first day of practice, Kanaman and her players talked about a season goal of winning a regional title. Last year’s season-ending 4-2 loss in a regional final to Coleman was a game that Kanaman feels slipped away.
“Definitely to redeem ourselves in that regional final would be for sure the least of where we expect to be,” Kanaman said.