MILTON-FREEWATER - Seven Mac-Hi softball players are returning to the field with last year's first-round loss in the Class 4A state softball tournament still on their minds.
This season, they plan to return and go farther.
"When everyone comes together, I expect we'll be fighting for a title," said Pioneers coach Nicole Christian. "The past couple of years we've been in third (place), we haven't been able to get over that hump. It's either our hitting or defense. But I think that once we get going as a team, we definitely have a chance at the title and to go deep at state."
Five seniors and two juniors return to the team with full-time varsity experience, while two other juniors saw varsity time last year.
All of the full-time returners have received Greater Oregon League all-conference honors at some point in their softball careers.
Seniors Alyssa Harrington, Shawney Garcia, Brittney Hall and Mariah McElrath all earned All-GOL honors last season, and Garcia was the team's MVP.
Belen Betancourt was injured early in the season.
Harrington will likely play in the outfield this year and was first-team all conference and an honorable mention on the all-state list.
Garcia will be one of the starting pitchers for the Pioneers and play a utility role.
Hall and McElrath, who both played right field last year, were also honored in outfield and utility play last season. McElrath likely continues that utility role, moving between infield and outfield.
"All of my seniors have been all-conference at some point," Christian said.
Returning juniors Kalyn Odman and Kaitlin Erm both varsity minutes as sophomores.
Odman will be the team's starting first baseman and is in her third year of varsity play. As a sophomore, she was first-team all-conference and second-team all-state. She's also the Pioneers' only returning infielder.
Erm, a pitcher, will provide the second part of Garcia's 1-2 punch, Christian said. Erm, an all-conference pitcher, is expected to start some games this season.
Juniors Erika Griffith and Jolene Brannan spent time on varsity last year and will likely continue that swing role with the junior varsity squad, Christian said.
Seven sophomores join the team, all with JV experience or previous time on a varsity squad.
Most of the infield will be replaced with those new players, Christian said.
"It will be mostly sophomores with some seniors pushing for rotation," she said.
Megan Reed and Cheyenne Kessler both transferred from Touchet this year. They played varsity for the Indians and Christian is pleased to have them join the Pioneers. Both played summer softball in Milton-Freewater.
"It's a huge asset to pick them up," Christian said. "They're working hard to get to know each other, but it's a great addition to have those two transfer into our program."
Reed, a pitcher, will battle with Garcia for a spot on the mound. She'll also spend time learning the infield.
Kessler, a catcher, will have her hands full with the three pitchers.
Kariss Carillo, Breanna Crewse and Meghan Kimball round out the team. The three sophomores all played JV last year and will battle seniors for starting spots in the infield and outfield, Christian said.
"It's hard with the age gap and replacing the infield, but we can go into state this season and I know the girls know that," Christian said. "We need to get the little things together and the foundation laid, and our defense and hitting, and build up from there."
The Pioneers started practicing Feb. 28 and open the season Tuesday at Athena. They travel to a tournament in Portland this weekend and play nonleague games through March.
League play opens on the road at Baker April 8. All of Mac-Hi's first-round league games are away, while their GOL opponents will travel to Milton-Freewater for the second go.
None of the GOL teams lost pitchers to graduation, so most of the looks will be familiar, Christian said.
"Unless someone has a huge surprise from JV, it will look about the same," she said. "We're probably the only one with anyone new with the addition of Megan (Reed). We have a couple of key surprises this year."
Lance Bullock took over as JV coach when Bob Christian, Nicole's father, moved to assistant on the varsity.
Nicole Christian has four other assistant coaches.
"It's so nice to have all of these people put in their time and try to make softball a successful program at Mac-Hi," she said.
Right now, working on the fundamentals is the main thing, Christian said.
"We need to take care of the basic things to get us where we need to be by the end of the season," she said. "We don't want to get to the playoffs and get knocked off in the first game again.
"On the back of our shirts, it says ‘We is greater than me,' and we're working on the whole team and as a coaching staff, from the ground up, to get us where we want to be. We want to win a conference title and possibly a state title."