Ray Melewski will be making his head-coaching debut with the Canfield softball team when it takes the field at Lakeview on March 27.
It will be the longtime Canfield resident's first attempt at leading a varsity team. Melewski was an assistant coach at Howland last season and a former softball umpire. Unlike when he was an ump, however, Melewski didn't have to have any arguments with anyone when Canfield came calling.
"I always knew that if the Canfield job ever came open I'd go for it," said the Coach whose daughter Rachael played for the Cardinals a few years ago. "I was surprised I got it, but very excited."
The rookie coach was also excited when he looked at the volume of young ladies he had that tried out for the team. An astronomical total of 33 girls put on spikes on the first day of practice with nineteen of them representing the freshman class. That number has allowed Canfield to split into a record amount of squads.
"We will be able to have three different teams altogether," marveled Melewski. "That is the most ever at Canfield. That's a good thing to see."
Luckily for Coach Melewski the entire roster is not made up of just freshmen. Eight upperclassmen will take up the bulk of the team's playing time. All of those elite eight earned letters in 2011 and are poised to form one of the most potent lineups in the All American Conference.
"We will have a strong batting order 1 through 9," exclaimed Melewski. "We can do a lot of things with it. We can alternate lefty then righty and we have a couple girls that are switch-hitters."
The most powerful bat in the lineup will be the cleanup hitter Sarah Vrabel. Vrabel returns to sock the softball and be the top run producer on the Lady Cardinals. Sarah also is a super pitcher and will be at the front of Coach Melewski's rotation.
"Sarah looks very strong so far," said Melewski. "She is our number one starter and a great power pitcher."
When she is not in the pitching circle Vrabel will occupy time on either corner infield position. Joining Vrabel in the infield will be senior Gina Mancini. Mancini was a menace to opposing pitchers in 2011 and she is one of the finest fielders at either second base or shortstop.
The third senior on this year's squad is catcher Laura Beck. Beck did everything asked of her last season both offensively, where she was a reliable run producer, and defensively where she handled the pitching staff adequately. Beck will be beckoned to do even more with the pitchers this season.
"(Beck) is a very alert catcher," explained Melewski. "She knows how to take control. That is why we are going to let her call more of the pitches this year."
While this trio of twelfth-graders is impressive on the diamond, they are just as important to the Cardinals in the clubhouse.
"I couldn't ask for three better girls," Melewski said proudly. "They are true leaders. Before I was named coach these three seniors took it upon themselves to do conditioning with the rest of the girls."
Besides the sensational seniors, the Cardinals claim a group of outstanding junior players too. That list is made up of shortstop Abby Baker, outfielder Kaci Hyde, outfielder/infielder Kayley Keller, infielder Sydney Opladen and pitcher Alexa Schmidt. That quintet will probably round out most of the rest of Melewski's lineup and, in the case of Schmidt, help strengthen the pitching rotation.
"Schmidt is a good number two starter," Melewski said. "She is a finesse pitcher who hits her spots well."
Hitting in the other spots in the batting order may be underclassmen such as sophomore Liz Raber and freshman Rachel Tinkey. Of course, with the abundance of ninth-graders at his disposal, Coach Melewski may find a few diamonds to take the diamond in their first year.
One thing that has the new coach worried is the lack of field time his girls have gotten. Despite the beautiful and unseasonably warm March weather, the Cardinals have been stuck doing a lot of drills indoors denying Melewski the chance to evaluate his defenders.
"We need to get out onto the field more consistently so I can see our defense," he said. "We have a lot to work on yet."
Canfield will definitely also work hard at dethroning powerful Poland in the Red Tier of the conference. Not only do the Cardinals have to beat the Bulldogs in the regular season, but Poland is also the defending Division II state champions. No doubt, a lot of this season's strategy is in stopping the Lady Bulldogs.
"Poland is certainly the team to beat," Melewski admitted. "We know when we play them."
For the record the Cardinals play a home-in-home against the Bulldogs on April 16 and 17.
Coach Melewski also knows that with a little patience and a lot of hard work, his first season in Canfield can become quite memorable.
"We have to take it one step at a time," he said confidently, "but our goal is to win games in the tournament. Canfield has won championships before, there is no reason why we can't win another one."