Redbank Valley softball team keeps status as favorites in perspective
Around the high school and throughout the New Bethlehem community, Redbank Valley softball coach John Sayers and his players hear the chatter about the Bulldogs' strong chances of winning a District 9 championship.
To know that such talk exists around town is exciting, Sayers and his girls agree.
However, the Bulldogs plan to keep distracting speculation like that away from their sanctuary, the softball diamond.
Unwavering focus is a necessity for Redbank Valley, which graduated just two girls from a team that reached the district's Class AA title game last season.
So many key contributors returned that the Bulldogs look more than capable of a championship run. They just can't let their guard down when game time arrives.
“I don't know how many people have said to me, ‘Well I guess this is your year,' ” Sayers said. “And I say, ‘I don't know. Talk to me in late May,' because we don't profess to be the favorites. There are a lot of good teams out there.”
Redbank Valley finished with a 14-5 record last season after an 8-1 loss to Cranberry in the district championship.
Inexperience at that stage led to struggles for the Bulldogs, who managed just one hit and allowed seven runs in the second inning of the defeat.
Offensive improvement was a priority during the offseason. Sayers noted that his players stranded 127 runners.
One solution to the team's scoring woes: Take more risks on the base paths.
“We put a few new wrinkles in to try to motivate and manufacture runs,” Sayers said. “We're trying to keep the defense on edge all the time.”
From the top of the order down, the Bulldogs like the plan.
“I feel like we could've pushed more people across the plate if we'd been more aggressive (last season),” said senior center fielder Alex Bell, who will again serve as the leadoff hitter. “We were more focused on our defense then.”
Strong play in the field remains a defining characteristic of the team. Senior pitcher Lyndsey Jones, arguably the district's best hurler, is back and, in the opinion of her coach and teammates, better than ever.
Surrounding Jones is a collection of infielders that remains intact for a third straight season: Emma Kennemuth will start at first base; Hailey Rearick, at second; Alaina Kunselman, at shortstop; Darian Gruver, at third; and Kate Brothers, at catcher.
The return of Morgan Toth bolsters the outfield and gives Redbank Valley another quality bat in the top half of the order. Toth, a junior who missed all of last season with a torn ACL, ranked among the team's RBI leaders as the No. 5 batter in the lineup, Sayers said. Cleanup duty will go to Rearick.
Tessa Troup rounds out the starting nine as Redbank Valley's right fielder.
“Our depth is about the same as last year, but I think our overall talent is better,” Sayers said.
Despite such declarations elsewhere, Sayers serves as a barrier that blocks out hype.
“Our coaches are the ones keeping us relaxed, because all the people around the school are saying it's our year … and we don't really need much more of that,” Bell said.
“As a team, we stress at practice that we don't need to worry about what anyone else thinks about us,” Kunselman said. “I think we're capable of (a district championship), and as long as we take it one game at a time, we'll be fine.”