WALLA WALLA - When you don't graduate a single senior off of a softball team that placed fourth at state last spring, rebuilding shouldn't be part of the 2012 conversation.
Well, Russ Vera, who is beginning his fourth season as the DeSales High varsity coach, might disagree. Although he has some talented players returning from last year's successful squad, there are some holes to fill as well as the team moves forward.
Three of last year's starters - shortstop Stephanie Ferrel, first baseman Alex Buley and second baseman Renee Roach - decided not to turn out for softball this year. And a fourth regular from a year ago, left fielder Megan Hamada, injured her knee as a basketball cheerleader and will be lost for the softball season.
And that list of Irish vacancies doesn't even include Ali Zander, who was the starting third baseman as a freshman in 2010. Zander suffered a knee injury during her sophomore basketball season and then reinjured the same knee this year as a junior.
"There must be something in the water," Vera said. "Another of our players, Mary Crowley, also tore her ACL, but she's coming back a lot quicker than some of the other girls."
Crowley, one of four sophomores on this year's roster, was a reserve outfielder on last year's team and will be battling for additional playing time in the outfield once her knee is completely healed.
"She's probably going to miss the entire month of March," Vera said. "We hope to have her back in April. She's a pretty fast girl who used to run track, and we can use her as a pinch runner and also as a sub outfielder."
This year's DeSales roster is 16 players deep, Vera noted, but six of them are eighth graders from Assumption Middle School.
"The WIAA (Washington Interscholastic Activities Association) allows us to pull up eighth graders if the high school turnout is 16 players or below," Vera said. "It gives you more flexibility if you have injuries, and it helps with practices."
And three of those eighth graders have already been penciled into the starting lineup, Vera said.
Brittney Postlewait will be asked to take on the catching duties, which allows Vera to move last year's catcher, sophomore Molly Lesko, to second base. Teresa Acock is being handed the duties at shortstop where Ferrel played last year. And Allesyn Lyons, the younger sister of sophomore pitching ace Ashlyn Lyons, will replace Buley at first base.
"Brittney knows how to catch," Vera said of Postlewait, who is the daughter of former DeSales baseball catching standout Mike Postlewait. "You can see a lot of Mike in Brittney, the way she handles herself behind the plate and the way she conditions and drills on her own. She is going to do real well for us.
"It's asking a lot of an eighth grader to play shortstop because it can be intimidating," Vera said. "But right now Teresa Acock is my starting shortstop, and she is settling in and getting a lot of help from our upperclassmen. I see a lot of potential in her.
"And I'm looking at Allesyn at first base because of her good footwork," the coach said of the younger Lyons. "She could play shortstop as well, and she will be our No. 2 pitcher."
Ashlyn Lyons, who was honorable mention all-state as an eighth grader, is clearly DeSales' No. 1 pitcher. And she'll play first base when she's not pitching because Vera wants her bat in the lineup every inning of every game.
"She's just a great player," Vera said of his sophomore southpaw. "She is a leader on the team, and I think she has improved immensely from a pitching standpoint last year to this year. She played on a travel team that went to California and Colorado, she has gone to a pitching coach in the Tri-Cities, and she has developed about four pitches that have totally improved since last year.
"Hittingwise, she's our best as far as average, home runs and RBIs. The other girls feed off of her a little bit. She knows how to play, and she is willing to help the other girls out any way she can."
In addition to Ashlyn Lyons, the other returning starters are sophomore third baseman Brianna James, sophomore center fielder Claire Conley, junior right fielder Bobbie Prior and Lesko, the sophomore who is making the move from catcher to second base where she replaces Roach.
"Brianna returns at third base, same as last year," Vera said of James. "She has improved her hitting as well as her fielding.
"Claire was our center fielder last year, and we are also working with her at first base this year," he said of Conley. "We're still not sure where her permanent place will be, but her hitting has improved immensely. I see her fitting in as our No. 4 or No. 5 hitter this year.
"Bobbie also caught a couple of games for us last year," Vera said of Prior. "But she was mainly our right fielder and was third on the team in batting average."
Lesko's new responsibilities won't be limited to her defensive position, Vera said.
"We're going to make her our leadoff hitter," the coach said. "She was probably our second-leading hitter last year, and she has gotten taller and faster. She has a great bat, she can bunt and she has a lot of speed that she didn't have last year."
Left field is the only position that is unclear going into Saturday's jamboree at DeSales. Weston-McEwen and Mac-Hi's junior varsity will also participate in the 11 a.m. competition, which will allow each of the teams to play two two-inning games.
Devan Pommerening, the only senior on this year's roster, will be competing for playing time in left as well as juniors Gabby Lizardi, a transfer from Wa-Hi, and Maria Guerrero, a Mexican foreign exchange student, who are both in their first year at DeSales. Freshman Alyssa James, another first-year player, is also an outfield candidate.
Other eighth graders on the Irish roster are Jane Conley, Kara Hall and Cassidy Meliah.
"Conley practiced with us as a seventh grader, so we got to know her that way," Vera said. "She is very athletic and comes from a very athletic family.
"Hall will probably be our No. 3 pitcher and has a couple of years of experience playing travel ball. She can play the infield if we need her. And Meliah also has travel experience, can play both the infield and the outfield and will be competing for that starting spot in left field."
DeSales finished 8-15 in 2009, the Irish's first season with Vera as head coach. The Irish improved to 21-7 and finished third at state in 2010 and they were 19-9 and fourth at state in 2011.
"Overall, we are going to be very young," Vera said of his 2012 squad. "I say that every year and the other coaches tell me, ‘Yeah, right.'
"But I wouldn't say we are inexperienced," the coach added. "We have a lot of girls with a lot of travel-team experience. And when I look at our roster and compare it to the other teams, I see us right up there in the title hunt.
"We just need a few of these eighth graders to step up when we need them and go from there."