By Nick Curcuru
---- — There’s plenty of reason to be excited about the prospects of Cape Ann’s softball teams this spring.
Gloucester, Rockport and Manchester Essex will each be trotting out plenty of new faces to the diamond this spring, and that’s exactly what has each coach excited to get the season going.
In Gloucester, head coach John Nicastro is starting an influx of underclassmen. The defending Cape Ann League Division 3 champs and 2012 sectional semifinalist Rockport is breaking in several new starters this spring while Manchester Essex also has new faces and underclassmen scattered across the lineup.
Here’s a look at how each team stacks up heading into the 2013 season.
Raising the bar
The Rockport softball program has continued to raise the bar of success over the last few seasons culminating in a conference title, its second straight, and the first trip to the sectional semifinals in school history.
The Vikings lost some key figures from that group including five starters. Dianne Parisi’s squad, however, enters this season a fairly inexperienced yet confident group.
“We have a lot of turnover but I think we’ll be fine,” Parisi said. “It helps that the program has been so successful over the last few seasons. The bar has already been set for them. I think it’s a strength that we are young, they have put in the work, they know their goals and they are all good, solid athletes.”
The biggest void Rockport will have to replace this season is on the mound, as four-year starting pitcher Kristin Turner was lost to graduation. Fortunately, Parisi has a wealth of pitching options.
Parisi says she can call on any of four girls to take the mound at any given moment. Junior captain Hannah Lorden, sophomore Kayla Parisi and freshmen Rachel Balestraci and Jessica Collins all figure to see time on the mound this spring.
“Having the option of four players is big,” Parisi said. “If one is having an off day we can put someone else in. All four have looked good in the preseason and I’m comfortable using any of them in any situation.”
Rockport heads into this afternoon’s season opener at East Boston (3:45 p.m.) being led by its six returning players including four returning starters. Junior co-captains Lorden and Mollie Watson, junior Meghan Tupper along with sophomore Kayla Parisi not only boast starting experience, they will also be hitting in the heart of the Vikings batting order.
Watson is Rockport’s top returning starter as she is the team’s leading returning hitter and already a two-time Cape Ann League All Star catcher. She and Parisi give Rockport a dangerous one-two punch in the middle of the order while Tupper and Lorden set the table at the top of the lineup.
Those four returning starters combined with new starters Courtney Nelson and Isobel MacCrate have the Vikings thinking CAL championship for the third straight year.
“There’s a lot of young girls but we have the veterans to go with them,” Parisi said. “I think we can match up well with the teams in our conference. We are just looking to execute every game and take it one day at a time, we don’t like to look too far into the future.”
Nicastro did not know what to expect out of his team heading into tryouts in the middle of March. Gloucester was hit hard by graduation from a team that won just six games in 2012. But after seeing the way his youngsters have responded in preseason action, Nicastro is excited about both the present and the future.
“I didn’t know what to expect out of them but I am extremely pleased with what I have seen this preseason,” Nicastro said. “In our scrimmages we only had one bad inning all spring where we threw the ball around a little. Other than that, we played really well.”
Gloucester is breaking in a lot of new faces as there will be five freshman on the varsity team this season. Nicastro hasn’t been afraid to throw his freshman right into the fire as Karina Keenan and Lauren Sperry will be the team’s starting pitchers while Sabrina Maciel and Kiley Allen will be starting at shortstop and second base respectively.
“(The freshmen) are making a big jump from youth softball to varsity, but I’m pleased with the progress so far,” Nicastro said. “Sure having low upper-classmen numbers helped give them an opportunity for playing time, but they’re not really opportunities, they’re all spots well earned. Sabrina Maciel could play for any team in the conference.”
While the newcomers will certainly give Gloucester a nice shot in the arm, it’s the team’s five returning starters that will power it. Quad captains Katie Munroe, Darien Foley and Sophie Black, all seniors, along with junior Olivia Legendre all return to the key roles they played last season. Legendre will get the start in centerfield, Black in left, Foley at first and Munroe at third base.
Sophomore catcher Tess Benson also returns to the team’s starting lineup and has been a force in the preseason.
“Tess has been a monster in the preseason,” Nicastro said. “She’s definitely going to be a player to watch this spring.”
Nicastro is also really happy with the way the team has clicked in the offseason. Team chemistry is a huge strength for the Fishermen this spring as the upper-classmen and under-classmen began working well together immediately.
“They all know they need each other to win and they all have the dedication to get better,” Nicastro said. “We want to put Gloucester softball back on the map as a winning program. In a tough conference with a lot of freshmen starting, you have to be a realist about things but you can feel it in the air that this program is getting better. We are looking to be competitive this season and if we limit our mental mistakes I think we could make a push to the tournament.”
First year head coach Steve Price will be introducing a new system to the Manchester Essex softball program this spring, and he promised to be aggressive and continuously put pressure on the opponent.
“We have a lot of team speed and I want to put it to good use,” Price said. “We are going to emphasize the importance of laying down a nice bunt, executing a hit and run and really putting pressure on the defense. In the league we play in, you are going to have to manufacture runs and win those one or two run ball games.”
Like its Cape Ann counterparts, Manchester Essex also has a nice blend of veterans and youngsters.
Senior captains Nicole Bradley and Kelsi Field lead the way this spring. Bradley was an all star outfielder as a junior last season while Field returns at second base and gives the Hornets an experienced and reliable middle infield combination along side shortstop Rachael Gallagher, a junior returning starter.
Freshman Amanda Loebelenz is expected to handle the pitching duties but juniors Paige Zaval and Cailey Lafferty could also see some time on the mound after pitching important innings for the Hornets last season.
Manchester Essex is looking to improve upon a six win season in 2012.
“We are looking to create a culture of winning,” Price said. “A lot of that has to do with the attitude you bring to the field. I’ve liked the attitude and the work the team has put in so far and we are looking to be competitive every time we step on the field this season.”
Fortunately for Price and the Hornets, they do not start the season until next Friday. The weather was not kind to the softball fields in Manchester and Essex this winter and as a result the Hornets have yet to practice on an outdoor softball field. For the first three weeks of spring, Price and company have taken to Ed Field, which does not have a diamond.
Manchester Essex will not see its first action on an actual softball field until they travel to Gloucester on Saturday to scrimmage the Fishermen at Burnham’s Field.
Gloucester :Head Coach: John Nicastro (second season) Last Year's Record: 6-14 Captains: Katie Munroe, Sr.; Darien Foley, Sr.; Sophie Black, Sr.; Olivia Legendre, Jr. Key Returning Players: Katie Russo, Sr.; Annelise White, Jr.; Tess Benson, Soph. Key Newcomers: Sabrina Maciel, Fresh.; Karina Keenan, Fresh.; Kiley Allen, Fresh.; Lauren Sperry, Fresh. Strengths: Team chemistry. Nicastro's squad has been clicking as a team from the get-go with a great mix of senior leadership and hungry underclassmen. Concerns: Gloucester has an extremely young lineup playing in the always deep and tough Northeastern Conference. While Gloucester's underclassmen are extremely talented, they are making a big jump from youth leagues to the varsity level. Coach's Outlook: "We're really young but this is an exciting group. We are asking a lot out of some underclassmen but I think they're up to the challenge. The NEC is tough this year but we will be competitive." Season Opener: Wednesday, April 10 vs. Winthrop (4:00 p.m.) Rockport :Head Coach: Dianne Parisi (15th season) Last Year's Record: 16-5 (lost to St. Mary's in Division 3 North Semifinals) Captains: Mollie Watson, Jr.; Hannah Lorden, Jr. Key Returning Players: Isobel MacCrate, Sr.; Courtney Nelson, Sr.; Meghan Tupper, Jr.; Kayla Parisi, Soph. Key Newcomers: Rachel Balestraci, Soph.; Jessica Collins, Soph.; Ali Davis, Fresh.; Rachel Davis, Fresh; Emily Faulds, Fresh.; Meghan Wonson, Fresh. Strengths: Rockport has a good mix of veteran players and young players. While they have a lot of young players Parisi believes that will work in the teams favor as they are athletic and hungry. The Vikings also have four options at pitcher. Concerns: Parisi and the Vikings are always working on and looking to improve their fundamentals. Coach's Outlook: "Some may think it's a rebuilding year because we have a lot of turnover but we have a lot of good, solid athletes. I think if the girls continue to put the work in the way that they have in the preseason we will really click. We aren't looking to far into the future, we are just taking it one game at a time." Season Opener: Today at East Boston (3:45 p.m.) Manchester Essex :Head Coach: Steve Price (first season) Last Year's Record: 6-12 Captains: Nicole Bradley, Sr.; Kelsi Field, Sr. Key Returning Players: Rachael Gallagher, Jr.; Paige Zaval, Jr.; Cailey Lafferty, Jr. Key Newcomers: Amanda Loebelenz, Fresh. Strengths: Team speed. The Hornets have speed up and down the lineup and Price is planning on implementing that speed by being aggressive on the base paths. Concerns: With Price being a first year head coach, the team is still looking to get acclimated to his style of play. Coach's Outlook: "We are looking to be highly competitive in every game we play. It would be great to pound out plenty of hits each game but if we are facing a tough pitcher we are going to have to manufacture runs. We will be aggressive and will always put pressure on the defense." Season Opener: Friday, April 12 at Ipswich (3:45 p.m.)