Wickliffe returns seven starters from last year’s team that finished 20-3 overall and 12-2 in the Chagrin Valley Conference Chagrin Division.
Three returning starters will become four-year varsity letter winners and Wickliffe added several talented newcomers leaving the Blue Devils cautiously optimistic heading into the 2018 season.
“This puts us in a nice position because the returners are familiar with the girls playing around them,” said Wickliffe coach Marlana Mucciarone. “This will hopefully give us an advantage when it comes to situational play. Of course, that is if we go with a similar lineup as last season. With many of the girls being versatile and able to play different positions, it will give us the opportunity to maybe rearrange some of the puzzle pieces to see if there is a better fit for us. When it comes down to it, who plays where really depends on who can be the most productive offensively.”
The four-year letter winners include Emily Lesco, Taylor Klein and Gia Welms.
Lesco will pitch and play first base. She recorded a 1.24 earned run average with 93 strikeouts last year and also batted .450 with 29 runs batted in. She was named first team All-CVC and honorable mention all-district.
Klein returns in center field and Welms will catch and play in the outfield. Welms hit .423 last spring with 31 runs scored, 22 RBI, five doubles and 13 stolen bases. She was named second team All-CVC and won the team’s defensive award.
“Gia Welms will be behind the plate for us again this year,” Mucciarone said. “She was our most valuable defensive player and, in my opinion, was the best catcher in the CVC last season. She has a cannon for an arm and a very high softball IQ. She understands the game, making her an ideal catcher. Taylor Klein will be returning as our center fielder. She is great at judging and tracking down fly balls and can cover a lot of ground.”
Sophomore Hannah Levon will split time with Lesco in the circle and also play first base. She posted a 1.67 ERA last spring. At bat, she hit .519 with 38 RBI, eight doubles and five triples in earning honorable mention all-district honors and earned the team’s offensive award.
“Emily Lesco and Hannah Levon will be sharing roles at pitcher and first,” Mucciarone said. “This will be Lesco’s fourth year as our starting pitcher, but Levon has made huge strides in the offseason and will definitely see more time on the mound this year.”
Senior Ashley Burker will play second and shortstop, junior Gianna Ranallo will play second and outfield, sophomore Caitlyn Henderson will play short and outfield and junior Olivia Wills will play third base and outfield.
Burker hit .563 last spring with 21 RBI, 25 stolen bases and 36 runs scored. She was named second team all-district and first team All-CVC and also earned Wickliffe’s offensive award.
“Five of our six infielders will be returning from last year,” Mucciarone said. “Ashley Burker will be returning at second base. Her speed gives her nice range and she has played the position very well for us the last two years. Caitlyn Henderson started as our shortstop last year and did a nice job. She has been working hard in the preseason to improve on some things and I think that hard work is going to pay off. Olivia Wills will be stepping into the third base position this year. She was a utility player who spent most of her time in the outfield last season. Wills has a strong arm and quick glove which makes her the best candidate for third.”
Senior Brenna Hillyard will play in the outfield and sophomore Olivia Clark will be used in a utility role. Ranallo also will see some time in the outfield.
“Ranallo is probably the most athletic girl on our team,” Mucciarone said. “All of her movements are so smooth and effortless. She will probably see time in the infield as well because of her athleticism and versatility. Brenna Hillyard will also see time in the outfield this year. She has a big bat and I am excited to see what she can bring to us offensively.”
Newcomers to the Wickliffe roster include Bri Rypinski, Olivia Clark, Olivia Wrayno, Lily Ross and Mia Welms.
“They are a very flexible group and will definitely be helping us out in a number of ways both offensively and defensively,” Mucciarone said.
Last spring, Wickliffe lost a total of three games and all three were by one run.
Mucciarone hopes the additional experience can help the Blue Devils challenge Perry for the CVC title and also be the difference between winning and losing in the postseason.
“With seven returning starters, it seems evident that we should have a similar season,” Mucciarone said. “However, every year the team dynamic changes and the puzzle pieces sometimes don’t fit the same way. For us to be successful again, we need to mesh as a team, be all in, and be open and accepting to new or different roles as we find what works for us this year. To do this we need to improve our mental toughness. We need confidence, consistency and leaders to emerge. The girls need to believe in themselves and their abilities. I am always saying we need to have continuous improvement every day. That is why we work daily on the fundamentals. If we translate the basics from practices to games, we will put ourselves in a good position for success.”
The Blue Devils certainly possess the discipline and work ethic to meet Mucciarone’s challenge as they earned an Ohio High School Fastpitch Softball Coaches Association award for having the third highest team grade point average in Ohio with a 4.084 (weighted).
“This year, every player in our program is a scholar-athlete,” Mucciarone said. “Academics and athletics are often directly correlated. Hard work, dedication, and success in the classroom lead to hard work, dedication, and success on the field. I truly feel this is one of the main reasons why we have had a successful program the last several years.”