RIPLEY - If you take the time to talk to coach Ken Swisher about his 2013 Ripley softball team, it is immediately apparent that he can't wait to dig into the schedule and kick up some dirt. He is excited and passionate when he talks about his youthful roster.
"We are going to be playing some younger girls. The competition at various positions is heating up and I like how we are competing in early practices. We are going to be a lot of fun to watch this season. We have tremendous talent," says the veteran skipper.
The Lady Vikes graduated the last of the 2009 State Championship squad in infielders Makenzie Hesson, Kayla Ford, Ryne Hill and Abby Brannon. Hill and Brannon are making their mark on the college stage this season.
The Ladies enjoyed a 17-win season in 2012. Unfortunately, The girls in blue were ousted by All-State hurler Cece Bailey and Parkersburg South 2-1 and 6-0 in sectional play to bring an end to their season. With realignments kicking in this season, the Lady Vikings road in the post season in 2013 could favor the blue and white.
For Ripley in 2013, it all starts with pitching. Hard nosed, spikes on the rubber, challenge you in a full count, gun slinging - pitching.
Junior Reese Gandee, an All Mountain State Athletic Conference and Special Honorable Mention All-State hurler will lead the Lady Vikings on the hill this season as she did last year. Gandee has spent a tremendous amount of her off-season working out and honing her skills. In the process, Gandee dropped thirty pounds. Gandee went 11-6 last season with 2.48 ERA while fanning 72 hitters in 96 innings.
"I am very proud of Reese. Her transformation is nothing short of remarkable. She looks very sharp and ready to take the ball today," said Swisher.
Gandee does have help. Junior All MSAC outfielders Chelsey Hager and southpaw Dusti Fisher will be available to bring the heat this season. Karly Fitzsimmons was able to get valuable experience on the mound last season in limited action. The team ERA in 2012 was an eye popping 2.58.
Fisher was on the verge of breaking out as a fine pitcher last season before an ankle injury sidelined her for several games at the end of the 2012 campaign.
"We feel that our pitching will be very, very strong," added Swisher.
With Hager (.379, 11 stolen bases, 16 RBI) and Fisher (.385 10 RBI) on the corners with All-MSAC Centerfielder Ali Cunningham patrolling precious real estate between them, Ripley possesses one of the finest outfields in the state of West Virginia. With a talented pool of young defenders, coach Swisher may ask his prized corner outfielders to move to the infield.
"Hager and Fisher can play virtually anywhere. It is a little too early for me to know exactly what we are going to do but moving those girls in is an option. We have the luxury of letting it all play out on the field. We have healthy competition in the infield and I am very pleased with the performance of our freshmen."
Cunningham (.319, led team with 12 stolen bases) led off for Ripley last season but could move down in the order, perhaps to the third hole, depending on the lineup.
Sophomore Ashley Mellinger (.333 on-base %) will return to her post behind the plate. The talented line-drive masher made her presence known in winning the job last season as a frosh. Mellinger will likely be backed-up by sophomore Tori Anderson.
Montana Kershner hit (.295) last season for Ripley and played solid defense. Both Kershner and Cunningham are providing leadership as the team's lone seniors.
On a sad note, junior Mikayla Pursley will miss the entire season with concussion issues that were magnified for her during basketball season. She is attending practices and showing support for her teammates from the bench in 2013.
"Mikayla is such a quality individual. She was such a big part of our success last season and really embraced her roll as a pinch runner. She became a quality base runner for us in pressure situations. I am sure she will continue to be a big part of our success this season in a different role," added Swisher.
Junior Meghan Brannon has been impressive early. She hit (.288) last season and drove in 11 runs.
Other underclassmen that saw action last season and will compete once again are Desiree Johnson, Brittani Hancock, Hannah Ford (.333), Sierra Norris, Perri Williams, Abby Edwards and Sapphire Parsons.
Talented Freshman who will be competing for playing time include Reiley Simpkins, Darby Petersen, Delaney Parsons, Myranda Murphy, Kelsey Moore, Madisyn Hinzman, Ashton Devereux and Mickie Daugherty.
Coach Swisher's staff remains intact from a year ago. Assistant coaches include Stephanie Nester, Greg Bower, Dana Hager and Doug Vannest. Bobby Ratliff returns as statistician.
Ripley hosts a triple-header this Saturday. The Lady Vikings will play Wahama at 11 a.m. while Wahama and Roane will play around 2:30 p.m. followed by Ripley and Roane to wrap up the day.
The Lady Vikings travel to Point Pleasant for a scrimmage on Monday and kick off their season March 13 as they host the Lady Reds of Parkersburg.
There is a reason coach Swisher is excited. Stay tuned.