Kirtland’s softball team has a bit of rebuilding to do after the graduation of the only experienced pitcher on its roster.
The Hornets also have a new coach in Nina Christley, a former Nordonia Knight and John Carroll University Blue Streak.
“I’m really excited,” Christley said about beginning her head coaching career. “I was a little nervous just because it’s my first year and there are a lot of aspects that I don’t know, like the behind-the-scenes part of coaching, but it’s very exciting. It’s actually really cool too because I feel like since I’m still pretty young I can relate to the girls and they’re really comfortable with coming to me and telling me whatever’s going on. It’s been really cool building relationships with the girls.”
The Hornets played their best softball of the season down the stretch last spring as they won five of their last six regular-season games and then split a pair of postseason contests.
Kirtland returns nearly half of its starting lineup from last season, and Christley has been pleased with the progress she has seen out of her squad in the preseason.
“I’ve seen a lot of good things,” she said. “I’ve seen a lot of girls actually making really good improvements, which is amazing because we’ve got a few newer girls that aren’t really starting from scratch, but they’re not where the returning girls are. It’s really cool to see them improving so quickly. Then the returning girls, I like to see how they’re adjusting to my coaching style.”
Despite a large group of returning starters, Kirtland’s success hinges on how quickly its pitching staff can find its rhythm.
Gianna Cantini earned first-team All-Chagrin Valley Conference honors for her work in the circle last spring, but she has since graduated and now the Hornets will turn to Grace Mastrangelo, Megan Reed, and Addison Fleming to keep opposing teams off balance.
Mastrangelo earned second-team All-CVC honors as an infielder last season.
“Grace and Addison are probably going to be our biggest pitchers,” Christley said. “Grace is doing a phenomenal job. She just started like back in June and where she’s at—it’s not easy to step in and start throwing and pitching, especially at that age too—but she’s been doing a great job and she has a phenomenal attitude too. Addison is someone I definitely want to work with more and more to get her comfortable throwing.”
Senior Madison Matijevic is back behind the dish after earning first-team All-CVC honors last spring.
“I’ve seen some phenomenal things from Maddie at the plate,” Christley said. “We just had a scrimmage the other day and she had a dinger. It was just a huge home run. I thought that was a cool start for her, and I know she’s a phenomenal catcher. She puts in a lot of work back there and has a great attitude about it.”
The Hornets also return three other all-conference performers in Gianna DiFranco, Bella Hostutler, and Nikolena Samac.
DiFranco, a second-team selection, is a junior who returns to her shortstop position.
“Gianna is such a great kid,” Christley said. “I actually coached her over the summer for a travel team. She has a great attitude and will do anything you ask her to do. She’s super quick in the field and so fast on her transfer to get rid of the ball. Her technique is so fluid.”
Hostutler, a junior, is a returning starter in center field. She joined Hostutler on the second team.
“Bella is a powerhouse,” Christley said. “In center field, she has such a great arm and she’s a good leader out there. She’s really fast, too, and gives 100 percent.”
Samac, a senior, will play left field after earning honorable mention all-league honors last spring.
Rounding out the projected starting lineup are Ava Puruczky (1B), Reed (2B), Moira Balcerski (3B), and Avery Kuczkowski (RF).
Balcerski and Puruczky could split time at either first or third, and Kuczkowski and Samac are interchangeable in left and right field. Sierra Godfrey will provide depth at second base.
Sophomore Devon Haymer and freshman Vivienne Venida also will factor into the mix for the Hornets as both have impressed Christley in the preseason.
The Hornets have a lineup that should be competitive within the CVC Valley Division, but Kirtland’s success will be determined by how quickly the pitching staff settles in.
Kirtland’s defense will have to step up and provide support for its pitchers and the Hornets will have to pound the softball at the plate.
“It’s definitely going to take trust and it’s going to take a lot of communication, which we work on every day at practice,” Christley said of her team’s key to success. “When Gianna (Cantini) was pitching, she did most of the work. Now, there are going to be a lot more plays in the field and they have to trust each other and talk to each other.”