The 2012 softball season will be one of great importance to the Poland Lady Bulldogs for many different reasons.
First and foremost, the Lady Bulldogs will be the team with the biggest bulls-eye on their backs as they look to defend their 2011 Division II state championship. Before the Bulldogs get that far into their season they must also stay atop the ever-increasing All American Conference Red Tier. This season also marks the final one in the storied career of head coach Reid Lamport who will step down at season's end. Finally, a tremendous group of six seniors will be playing their final games in Poland and will look to continue the incredible role they have been on since the beginning of their sophomore season.
Increasing the pressure on Poland is a slate of games that is one of the most difficult in team history. Besides home-in-home series with conference rivals Canfield and Howland, Poland plays Red Tier newcomer Fitch twice, Elyria and goes to a tournament in Florida that features four of the top teams in that state.
Poland’s Jena Modic takes the pitcher’s mound for the game against the Liberty Leopards. Teammate Erin Gabriel positions herself at second base as the Bulldogs win 23-0.
"This will be a completely different season," said Lamport. "We beefed up our schedule to challenge the girls. We don't want to be satisfied (with winning the championship)."
You can't really blame the Bulldogs if they just rested on their laurels from last year, but that is not how this squad is wired. Coach Lamport and his girls know that they were the only team to make a repeat appearance in the state Final Four last year and they think with the proper preparation they can make it three trips in a row.
"If you're not getting better you're getting worse," said Lamport philosophically. "There is no guarantee you'll get back (to the Final Four). Some other teams (in Poland's region) have lost some key players so we have a chance."
Poland will always have a chance as long as it has Erin Gabriel in the pitching circle. It is far easier to mention the awards Gabriel has not won over the past three seasons than the ones she has won. Gabriel was on the bump when the Bulldogs lost the title in 2010 and when they captured it in 2011 so there is no reason to think that she won't be standing there again in 2012.
"Everything starts in the (pitching) circle," explained Lamport. "You feel confident you can beat anybody (when Gabriel is pitching)."
Although Erin is an enormous talent she is just one of six seniors who lead this Bulldog juggernaut. Third baseman Jenna Modic is a co-captain with Gabriel and together the two three-time all-state selections form one heck of a dynamic duo.
"(Jenna) is truly a team leader," said Lamport. "I expect a lot from her as well as the other seniors."
Those other four twelfth-graders are outfielder Maura Bobby, outfielder Amber Isaacson, second baseman Emily Chandler and shortstop Kalie Benson. Right now Benson is battling a stress fracture in her back, but she is expected to miss little if any playing time.
While those seniors are the heart of the team, there are some other Bulldogs who belong in the middle of Coach Lamport's lineup card. Junior outfielders Marissa Trevis, Anna Barnhart and Meredith Tesone will all see at bats. Junior catcher Meredith Testa will also play a huge role for Poland both at the plate and behind the plate.
"(Testa) really stepped up her game from last year," exclaimed Lamport. "It is important to have her catching (when Erin is pitching). Just like a quarterback needs a good receiver, a pitcher needs a good catcher."
Another fantastic catch Lamport made for his roster is first baseman Taylor Miokovic. Taylor was a tremendous talent as a freshman and will be counted on to do even more in her second season.
"We are expecting big things from Miokovic in the middle of the order," Lamport said.
It will be important for Miokovic and the rest of her teammates to turn up the heat offensively because getting runs on the board will help Gabriel dominate even more on the mound.
"We lost a .450 hitter from last year (Adrianna Sikora)," Lamport stated. "You don't just pop someone in there to hit .450. We have to hit consistently 1-9. We can't hide any players in this lineup."
Coach Lamport also cannot hide the fact that he is indeed hanging up his clipboard after 23 years of coaching when this season finally comes to an end. Even though the longtime leader doesn't like to say much about his pending retirement, he doesn't mind giving some sage advice.
"I'm trying not to dwell on it," said Lamport sincerely. "Like I tell my seniors, everything you do may be the last thing you do and now that applies to me."
There is probably not a better way for the coach to conclude his career than by winning a second straight Division II championship. There are very few experts out there who don't think the Bulldogs will do just that.