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Connellsville softball tries to rebound from rare losing season

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Evan R. Sanders
Connellsville's Rachel Oplinger takes a cut during batting practice Friday, March 8, 2013, at Connellsville High School.

Tom Nickelson is entering his fourth season as coach of the Connellsville softball team. He will be assisted by Jerry Cramer and Ashley Whipkey.

The Falcons open the season with an exhibition game March 23 at Laurel Highlands.

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Wednesday, March 13, 2013, 1:16 a.m.
 

Changes are on the way for the Connellsville softball team as it prepares for the 2013 season.

The Falcons are coming off an 8-11 season, which snapped a run of four consecutive seasons with a winning record. Connellsville also lost six seniors to graduation, which has left plenty of positions to fill. Replacing those six won't be easy, but Falcons coach Tom Nickelson is intent on doing it.

“You go about replacing (the graduates) by finding out what you have in the system and seeing them compete,” Nickelson said.

Possibly the biggest loss is on the mound as the Falcons were able to trot out Meghan Uher in most games the past three seasons. This season, Nickelson may try the pitcher-by-committee approach.

“I have four quality pitchers,” Nickelson said, pointing out that sophomores Jackie Cramer and Emily Keslar and freshmen Kaylee Bloom and Jessica Secrest have shown potential. “If everything works out, we might have a nice little rotation. Sometimes a dominant pitcher comes out, but I'd like to have three of four quality pitchers.”

The job of handling those pitchers will fall to junior catcher Rachel Oplinger, who is one of six returning letterwinners and provides a veteran presence for the team.

“She has improved,” Nickelson said. “She was good last year and I expect her to be better this year.”

Sophomore Amanda DeWitt will spell Oplinger behind the plate.

Around the infield, junior Jena Bukovac will play first and sophomore Alyssa Orndorff will be at second. Sophomore Kelsi Burkholder, junior Kelsey Fisch, Secrest and Cramer could all see time at third base.

DeWitt, Cramer, junior Marissa Keffer and freshmen Megan Butler and Shyanne Butler are expected to play in the outfield.

Kara Butler, the team's lone returning senior letterwinner, was a regular in center field last season. However, this year, she is making the switch to shortstop.

“I've played shortstop for my travel teams,” she said.

As one of only three seniors on the roster, Kara Butler is excited to see what the younger players bring to the team, especially the incoming freshmen.

“I feel like our freshmen are very good this year,” Butler said. “We have a lot of potential and a lot of speed. If we work as a team this year, we can be in the playoffs.”

The Falcons have missed the postseason in each of the past two seasons, and earning one of the top four spots in Section 1-AAAA won't be an easy chore. However, Nickelson is hoping the young players come along and the more experienced players continue to improve. If that happens, anything is possible.

“I see a lot of the older girls working with the younger girls and, hopefully, that will help a little bit,” Nickelson said. “We have a lot of rebuilding to do, but we have quality pitchers. If they can hit their spots, I think we have a chance to be competitive.”

Jason Black is the local sports editor of the Daily Courier. He can be reached at jblack@tribweb.com.

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