Softball preview: half of SSC teams have new coaches

Defending champion Eagan has no shortage of challengers

Until its teams get a few weeks into the season, South Suburban Conference softball might best be noted for a changing of the guard.

Five of the conference’s 10 teams have new coaches this season, including defending champion Eagan, where Christian Duncan takes over for Michelle Harrison.

Some of the league’s top players from 2016 were back, however, when the South Suburban schedule began this week. Here’s a look at the eight SSC teams from Dakota County:

Apple Valley

Coach: Chris Sikich.

Last season: 6-16 overall, 0-2 in Class 4A, Section 3 playoffs.

2017 so far: 2-3 overall, 1-1 in conference.

Upcoming: home games against Eagan on Thursday and Farmington on Monday, April 17 (both 4:30 p.m.).

Outlook: The Eagles are a youthful team with 10 players who are sophomores or younger. One of their veterans, senior pitcher Rachel Niederkorn, threw a three-hit shutout as Apple Valley defeated Delano 1-0 in the first round of the Mankato West tournament last weekend. Niederkorn, senior catcher Jaycee Lentz and sophomore Sabriya Passmore were honorable mention all-conference players last season.

Burnsville

Coach: Rachel Keeney (first season).

Replacing: longtime Burnsville softball architect Pat Feely, who remains with the program as an assistant coach. Keeney was an assistant to Feely with the Burnsville varsity the last three years.

Last season: 8-16 overall, 2-2 in Class 4A, Section 2 playoffs.

2017 so far: 3-2 overall, 1-1 in conference.

Upcoming: home against Prior Lake on Thursday, home against Rosemount on Monday, April 17 (both 4:30 p.m.).

Outlook: The program has been waiting for the year Burnsville jumped up in the South Suburban standings. Maybe this is it. Megan Osterhaus, a sophomore, is in her fourth season on varsity. Senior infielder Angela Wollmuth is a returning all-conference player. Bridget Armstrong and Heidi Stewart are two more key returnees. Wollmuth and Stewart had three hits each in a 5-4 loss to Eastview on Tuesday.

Eagan

Coach: Christian Duncan (first season).

Replacing: Michelle Harrison, who coached the Wildcats to the 2016 South Suburban title.

Last season: 21-5 overall, won South Suburban, finished second in Class 4A, Section 3.

2017 so far: 2-0 overall and in conference.

Upcoming: at Apple Valley on Thursday, at Prior Lake on Monday, April 17 (both 4:30 p.m.).

Outlook: Many of the pieces are back in place for another run at the conference and section championships. Pitcher Alyssa Jolliffe and infielder Taylor Luecke are returning all-conference players. Senior outfielder Samantha Sogge and junior pitcher Heidi Nelson were honorable mention all-conference. Also returning is senior shortstop Halle McGuire.

Eastview

Coach: Molly Kasper (first season).

Replacing: Trevor Monroe, who coached the Lightning to the 2015 state Class 3A championship.

Last season: 18-6 overall, third in Class 4A, Section 2.

2017 so far: 2-1 overall, 1-1 in conference.

Upcoming: at Farmington on Thursday, home against Shakopee on Monday, April 17 (both 4:30 p.m.).

Outlook: All-conference catcher Abby Lien returns to the lineup. Also back are two honorable mention all-conference players, juniors Grace Gall and Jessi Decovich. Gall will be the Lightning’s primary pitcher. Ninth-grader Angel Dye and senior Marki Sawyer are returning infielders. Many of the Lightning’s other players are young and need to develop quickly.

Farmington

Coach: Paul Harrington.

Last season: 14-11 overall, second in Class 4A, Section 1.

2017 so far: 3-0 overall, 2-0 in conference.

Upcoming: home against Eastview on Thursday, at Apple Valley on Monday, April 17 (both 4:30 p.m.).

Outlook: The Tigers were stung by the loss – at least for now – of captain and starting pitcher Maddie Muelken, who is being treated for Hodgkin’s lymphoma. Muelken might return later this spring, but Becca Silber has taken over in the pitching circle. Catcher Emily Berdan and infielder Caitie Dully also are captains; Dully is a returning all-conference player. Infielder Emma Frost blasted two homers and drove in all five of the Tigers’ runs in a 5-2 victory over Prior Lake on Tuesday.

Lakeville North

Teammates congratulate Lakeville North's Jordan Peterson after she homered during the Panthers' 13-9 victory over Apple Valley on Tuesday. Photo by Mike Shaughnessy
Teammates congratulate Lakeville North’s Jordan Peterson after she homered during the Panthers’ 13-9 victory over Apple Valley on Tuesday. Photo by Mike Shaughnessy

Coach: Michael Schultz (first season).

Replacing: Darwin Rasmussen.

Last season: 11-13 overall, 2-2 in Class 4A, Section 1.

2017 so far: 1-1 overall and in conference.

Upcoming: at Rosemount on Thursday, home against Lakeville South on Monday, April 17 (both 4:30 p.m.).

Outlook: Schultz hopes to lend stability to a North program that has its third varsity head coach in three years. Returnees include senior infielder Amanda Moncelle, who has signed with St. Cloud State, and junior catcher Paige Anderson. Both were honorable mention all-conference last season. Moncelle, senior infielder Hailey Forshee and ninth-grade infielder Jenna Beckstrom each had three hits in the season-opening victory over Apple Valley; Moncelle also drove in three runs.

Lakeville South

Coach: Emily Moreland (first season).

Replacing: Rob Laden, who coached Lakeville South to the 2014 state Class 3A championship.

Last season: 12-13 overall, third in Class 4A, Section 1.

2017 so far: 0-2 overall and in conference.

Upcoming: at Shakopee on Thursday, at Lakeville North on Monday, April 17 (both 4:30 p.m.).

Outlook: The season opener wasn’t kind to the Cougars, who fell behind Rosemount 7-0 after two innings and couldn’t rally against one of the state’s top pitchers, the Irish’s Gabby Sprang. Megan Conrads, a St. Cloud State recruit, is the shortstop and one of only two seniors on the varsity roster; the other is infielder Taylor Engel. Other returnees include juniors Sophie Link, Saylor Donnelly and Clarice Tennesen, and sophomore Jordan Lang.

Rosemount

Coach: Tiffany Rose.

Last season: 10-13 overall, 1-2 in Class 4A, Section 3 playoffs.

2017 so far: 1-1 overall and in conference.

Upcoming: home against Lakeville North on Thursday (4:30 p.m.), at Forest Lake tournament Saturday.

Outlook: If the Irish are going to reach the state tournament while they have Gabby Sprang in the pitching circle, it’s now or never. Sprang, a fixture on the Irish varsity since eighth grade, continues her softball career at the University of Tennessee next season. She started her final high school season by holding Lakeville South to three hits and striking out 16. Sprang, senior infielder Meghan Olson and junior outfielder Danielle Sorenson are returning all-conference players.