When the 2011 softball season ended, the Fitch Falcons said a final farewell to their friends in the Federal League.
This season, Fitch will represent the All American Conference Red Tier so it will have the chance to create rivalries with some schools that are in much closer proximity to Austintown than those Federal foes were. That prospect sounds inviting, but some of those opposing Red Tier teams are awfully tough. That fact didn't quell the enthusiasm Fitch head coach Melody Rice has for this upcoming season however.
"We are really excited to start our new conference and look forward to the challenges it presents," wrote Rice in an email. "We will have opportunities to play some of the finest teams in the area."
The finest of those Red Tier teams is also the best team in Division II. Defending state champion Poland is no doubt the queen of both the conference and the state and will provide a stern test each time it takes the field against the Lady Falcons. Also dotting Fitch's slate twice is hard-to-beat Howland and Canfield. Coach Rice realizes that none of those three outfits will take it easy on her club because it is a rookie in the Red Tier.
"That is some challenging competition coming our way," Rice said.
Rice's ladies may be up to that immense challenge because they are a group made up of veteran players. All but two of last season's letter winners return to the diamond in 2012 so a team with full knowledge of the Fitch system is one thing Rice can count on.
"This year will bring experienced players to the infield and outfield," said Rice. "The bulk of the leadership will fall on the five seniors who are all returning letter winners."
Headlining that quintet of seniors is outfielder Megan Carney who helped carry the Falcons in 2011 and earned some pretty prestigious acclaim in the process.
"Megan is coming into this season with an amazing award from the previous season," Rice exclaimed. "She earned the honors of 2nd team all state in the 2011 season and we look forward to her taking the next step in her play and having an amazing season."
Senior Tori Wise had an amazing season of her own in the pitching circle last year and will be counted on to be the number one starter this season. Wise will smartly throw her pitches to senior catcher Christine Holmes giving Rice an experienced and athletic battery.
"We are very fortunate to have two experienced upperclass players taking care of the pitching and catching duties with (Wise and Holmes) locking down those positions," said Rice sounding relieved.
Marissa Mraz and Marie Bishop are the other two Fitch seniors who will patrol the outfield and hopefully will become integral parts of coach Rice's starting lineup. Vying with that duo for outfield spots will be juniors Katee Sweeney and Sam Mehle and sophomores Gabby Butcher and Jess Welsh.
Fitch's infield will certainly be in solid hands this spring thanks to the presence of three letter winners and the return of one pivotal player. Sophomores A.J. Corradi and Cali Mikovich were fabulous at shortstop and second base as freshmen and look to become even better as tenth-graders. Mercedes Pratt is another sophomore who will make her triumphant return to first base after missing last season due to a major surgery.
The most important piece to the infield puzzle is arguably junior Alana Callahan. The two-time letter earner will be the most watched Falcon as this season sails on due to what she achieved in 2011.
"Alana had an awesome opportunity to play overseas against Olympic quality competition (in the offseason)," Rice said proudly. "She will lock down third base for us."
One last Falcon looking to lock down a varsity roster spot is freshman Nicholette Zordich. This talented rookie is someone to keep an eye on as she threatens to fill the team's utility role.
With a roster littered with as fine a group of athletes as coach Rice has seen in her coaching tenure, it will be important for the Falcons to fly in the faces of their opponents and never slow down for one moment. That will be the best way for Fitch to make a splash in its new surroundings and even possibly pull Poland down from the top.
"We have to have a team attitude to executing the plays in order to be successful," explained Rice. "We will look to be more aggressive than we have been before. We are a skilled team so we will look to go out and run. We will use the short game more with bunting and stealing while taking chances to gain extra bases. We want to put pressure on the other teams to make plays against us and force the action."