WALLA WALLA - The Russ Vera era did not start well last spring.
The first-year DeSales softball coach and his team staggered out of the gate - losing nine of their first 10 games.
But Irish fortunes took a turn for the better during the second half of 2009. DeSales went 8-2 and qualified for the district playoffs.
It's that strong finish that has Vera optimistic about the 2010 season.
"When I took over, I was told it was going to be a rebuilding year," Vera said. "In the second half, we played better ball. The girls knew they could play with the rest of the teams. They started playing ball the way they should. The girls were excited to go to district. That basically made our season."
It would have been easy to buy in to the rebuilding talk after DeSales lost star pitcher Amanda Arnzen to graduation. But Amanda Warnick, one of four senior co-captains on this year's Irish squad, improved as the year went on, according to Vera.
DeSales lost four seniors from a season ago - catcher Erin Mertens and third baseman Lynette Ungerecht, both all-league selections, honorable-mention first baseman Kelsey Hart, and second baseman Molly Cochran.
Those looking to share the senior leadership role with Warnick, who may also see some time in left field, are Lexi Zander, Michele Prior and Marcella Perez. Zander will start at shortstop, Prior is moving from right field to second base, and Perez is getting the starting nod in right field after serving as a part-time catcher in 2009, Vera said.
"Lexi is our lead-off hitter," Vera said. "We're counting on her to get on base and steal some bases. She is our sparkplug. As of right now, we're looking at Amanda as our No. 1 pitcher. She's working on her hitting and I'm looking for her to step up with her pitching this year.
"We're working with Michele on her foot work," Vera said. "She's going to fill that (second base) spot perfectly. She's spent the offseason working with (DeSales baseball) coach (Kim) Cox and we've seen her hitting improve immensely. When you've got that resource there, why not use it? Marcella is willing to do whatever it takes to get to the ball. She has a big heart."
Sophomores on the team are returning center fielder Janelle Hartford and back-up outfielder Devon Pommerening.
"Janelle is an all-around athlete," Vera said. "She has a good arm, good speed, and knows the game. She also worked with coach Cox. She was a good hitter last year and is a better hitter this year. This is Devon's first year out. She needs some work, but is willing to learn and getting better every day."
The 2010 roster includes four freshmen - Megan Hamada, who played as an eighth grader, starting left fielder and back-up catcher Alex Buley, Ali Zander, who will start at third, and reserve outfielders Bobbie Prior and Jenny Lee.
"Megan will be splitting duties with Marcella," Vera said. "She's worked with coach Cox. Her hitting has improved and her fielding has gotten better. She's throwing more accurately. Alex is an all-around athlete. We're looking to hit her in the five spot. Bobbie had back surgery two years ago and hasn't played softball. It showed at the first couple of practices, but her hitting has improved every practice. Ali will get some playing time in left field. She's got good skills, good foot work and a very strong arm. We're trying to get Jenny to understand the game. She's learning and is going to get to where we want her to be. She gives 100 percent every day in practice."
A trio of eighth graders round out the list of varsity players - starting catcher Amy Arnzen, pitcher Ashlyn Lyons, who may also play first base, and reserve outfielder and catcher Claire Conley.
"Amy has been playing travel ball for quite a few years," Vera said. "She is sound and has a good arm. She'll be No. 2 in the lineup. She's aggressive on the basepaths, so we'll be looking to get some stolen bases out of her. Ashlyn will be our No. 4 hitter. She has some power. She's a very sound and skilled player. She knows the game very well. Claire has shown promise behind the plate. We see her as our catcher for the future. She'll be an asset to the team."
Vera believes Waitsburg-Prescott and Dayton will be among the best teams in the Southeast B District this spring.
"They are always tough," Vera said. "I'm looking for them to be at the top of the list. Year in and year out, they are always tough to beat. I'm looking for us to be in the middle of the pack. We have the talent to compete."
The Irish softball season opens Tuesday at Asotin.