Looking for a three-peat.
That's what the Buckeye Local girls' softball team will be in search of this spring. The Lady Panthers have captured back-to-back OVAC Class 4A tournament titles.
However, as head coach Joe Soos knows, it won't be easy as the defending champions.
PICTURED ARE the key returnees for the Buckeye Local softball team. Front row, from left, are Becky Zeroski, Rachel Zeroski, Morgan Staten and Sandra Gardner. Standing, from left, are Ivy Starcher, Karlee Leonard, Lauren Swiger, Caitlin Cesario and Kierstyn Czuchran.
"Our main concern right now is replacing some quality seniors that were lost to graduation," Soos pointed out. "We lost five girls that accounted for 98 hits, seven home runs and 62 RBI last season. They were also very good defensive players."
He was talking about the likes of Aliyah Marelli, Kaylee DeCesare, Taryn Tonkovich, Amy Balk and Rachel Hoagland, with the first four being 4-year starters.
"That's a lot of talent and numbers to lose, but we've got quite a few girls returning," Soos added.
Indeed the Lady Panthers do. In fact, they have 10 letterwinners back in the fold, including starting pitcher Ivy Starcher and co-OVAC Class 4-A Player of the Year Lauren Swiger.
Starcher was an all-OVAC selection as a junior when she collected 10 wins inside the circle while striking out 108 batters. She is backed up by sophomore Sandra Gardner, who saw limited varsity action as a freshman.
"One positive for us is that we have a pair of really decent pitchers," Soos allowed. "That always helps."
Swiger, an all-Buckeye 8, all-OVAC and all-district performer, slugged .448 last season and drove in 24 runs. Among her 39 hits were four doubles, three home runs and a triple. She also scored 25 runs and hit safely in 24 of the Panthers' 27 games.
"Lauren continually puts the ball in play when she's at the plate," Soos noted.
Also back for another spring season are seniors Karlee Leonard (3B), Morgan Staten (OF), Caitlin Cesario (C) and Jess Faulkner (C); along with junior Kierstyn Czuchran (1B); and sophomores Becky Zeroski (C), Rachel Zeroski (INF) and the aforementioned Gardner.
Leonard is a 4-year starter at the hot corner and hit .295 last season.
Czuchran, who was accorded all-OVAC and all-district honors last season, recorded a .353 batting average and drove in 28 runs.
Becky Zeroski was the Panthers' starting catcher for most of last season.
"Another plus for us is the heart of our batting order is also back," Soos revealed. "You can never have enough bats in your lineup."
Buckeye Local struggled through the early portion of last season, but caught fire at the right time and qualified for the OVAC Class 4A tournament on the last day.
As the fourth seed, Buckeye promptly knocked off top-seeded Martins Ferry in a semifinal tilt before taking down second-seeded Harrison Cenral, 4-3, for the title.
"We are hoping our young players can mature quickly," Soos said. "We have a very formidable schedule and our aim is to peak at the right time.
"We would like to have the opportunity to defend our OVAC championships," he allowed.
Rounding out the team are sophomores Jordyn Casey (P/INF), Taylor Harbourt (OF), Taylor Norman (P/OF), Shala Richards (C/OF) and Kaitlynn Torok (INF); and freshmen Kayla Ankrom (INF), Carlee Bailey (P/INF), Katie Banal (OF), Destiny Christian (P/OF), Abby DeCesare (OF), Danielle Dvorcek (OF), Maddie Neavin (INF), Hazey Starcher (INF), Lexie Swiger (OF), Rian Trekal (C) and Hunter Zeroski (INF).
Soos is assisted by Jim Bartrug, Bob Czuchran and Don Moore. The JV coaches are Dan Signorini and Shelby Bartrug.
The complete Lady Panthers schedule is as follows:
March 31 - at Edison; April 2 - Toronto; April 4 - at Harrison Central; April 5 - at Weir, Noon; April 7 - Harrison Central; April 9 - Indian Creek; April 10 - Martins Ferry; April 11 - at Indian Creek; April 14 - Union Local; April 16 -- Oak Glen (DH), 5 p.m.; April 17 - at St. Clairsville (DH), 4:30 p.m.; April 19 - Buckeye Local Invite, 10:30 a.m.; April 21 - Bellaire; April 22 - at John Marshall; April 23 - Weir; April 25 - at Martins Ferry; April 28 - at Toronto; April 29 - East Liverpool; April 30 - at East Liverpool; May 1 - at Cambridge; May 5 - at Shadyside; May 8 - Shadyside.