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2014 KENTUCKY STANDARD SOFTBALL PREVIEW: Banshees still hungry

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Bethlehem Banshees Softball Preview

By Peter W. Zubaty, Sports Editor

The early start to the softball season hasn’t adversely affected two-time defending district champ Bethlehem. The Banshees already have 10 wins under their belts, and they’re hoping this is the year their veteran team takes the next step as a program.

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“We do have a veteran team,” said coach Shaun Smith, now in his third season. Bethlehem relies on a strong core of juniors and seniors who have been instrumental in the school supplanting Nelson County as the team to beat in the 19th District.

“We’ve been very fortunate to have a good group of kids willing to adapt to what we wanted,” Smith said. “I don’t know that we necessarily thought it would happen this fast, but they’ve done a good job of staying hungry and wanting more.”

More, in this case, Smith said, is a third straight district title and the school’s first-ever 5th Region tournament win, as well as becoming a regular contender for the region crown.

“Every year we have a different goal,” senior left fielder MacKenzie Hagan said. “It definitely adds pressure, but it’s a pressure we like.”

Senior Ashley Conover, who pitches and plays third, said it’s been an adjustment going from the hunter to the hunted. The Banshees need to be sharp every time out, especially against district opponents looking to knock them off their perch.

“We’re not always going to be perfect,” she said. “But we’ve got to be ready and can’t overlook anybody.”

Conover pairs with classmate Alex Newton to give the Banshees a strong 1-2 punch in the pitcher’s circle, and the two will swap out at third base when not pitching. Junior slugger Abi Duncan is back behind the plate after switching from third base last season.

There’s been some movement, and new additions, to the defensive lineup. Mollie Simms, the Banshees’ five-tool junior standout, makes the move from shortstop to center field, making way for sophomore Megan Myers, who transferred in from Bullitt East. Sophomore Stephanie Grether takes over at first base after transferring from Assumption, while eighth-grader Kirsten Crepps moves from the outfield to second base. Senior Nicole Jarboe is in right.

Smith said building better communication on defense is a key to Bethlehem’s success.

One thing Smith hasn’t had to worry about is run production. Bethlehem is averaging just a hair shy of 10 runs a game during its 10-4 start to the season, and three times the Banshees have scored 19 or more in a contest. Five starters have an on-base+slugging percentage of .900 or better, with Duncan, Conover and Newton all above 1.000.

“You’ve got to go up there thinking you’re going to do something,” Hagan said of the team’s approach at the plate. “Do your job.”

Smith has also done some tinkering with the batting order as well, moving Simms from leadoff to cleanup to better take advantage of her ability to drive in runs, and cut down on teams pitching around her. Simms leads the team with 15 RBIs and has scored 16 runs.

“It’s been a positive move for Mollie,” Smith said. “She’s hitting between some good hitters and gives us speed in the middle of the lineup.”

Myers takes over the leadoff spot while Newton — who has a 1.238 OPS to lead the team so far — remains in the two-hole. Duncan, who leads the team in extra-base hits, moves to the three spot in the order while Hagan will hit fifth.

“They take a lot of pride in putting runs on the board and being aggressive at the plate,” Smith said. “It’s a fun group to watch.”

Smith said the team is getting better at bunting and slap hitting than they usually are at this point in the season, progress helped along by the good turnout for practices through the fall and winter.

Smith said the next step for the program is to get some signature wins over some of the top teams in the region, to get the squad believing they can compete at the highest levels. They got chances in the TSOA Tournament at Meade County, suffering a 7-5 loss to the host Green Wave, currently ranked 12th in the state, and scoring a 6-5 win over North Hardin, a regular region power off to a slow start against a difficult schedule. No. 14 Holy Cross dealt the Banshees a loss in the Meade tournament, and Bethlehem suffered a 6-2 loss Monday at Green County in the All A Classic region tournament. The Dragons got a three-run homer in the fifth to break a 2-2 tie on the way to a 6-2 win.

“It’s all between our ears,” Hagan said. “Softball’s such a mental game.”

The Banshees return to action today with a 6 p.m. first pitch at Marion County (3-1).