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Gophers preparing for upcoming softball season

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LOVELESS: Clinton Prairie senior Holly Loveless pitches during the Gophers’ first official practice of the season Monday at Jefferson.
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WILSON: Hadley Wilson stretches to catch a throw to second base as Shalynn Barnett slides during Monday’s practice. Wilson is one of a handful of talented freshmen expected to push for varsity playing time.
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GOPHERS: The Clinton Prairie softball team listens to head coach Randy Cooper at the conclusion of their first practice.
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RAMSEY: Katelyn Ramsey slides over home plate late in Monday’s first practice.

By AARON KENNEDY - akennedy@ftimes.com

Monday was the first official day of practice for IHSAA softball programs, and Clinton Prairie was among those who braved the cold to take the field together for the first time since last April and work out the kinks of a long offseason.

The Gophers return an experienced group after going 9-11 last season and losing just one player – right fielder Erin Woods – to graduation.

“I am really pleased with the numbers,” longtime Clinton Prairie head coach Randy Cooper said. “We have, I think, an exceptional freshman class coming in. I think it is going to push some upper-classmen to compete and play hard all the time.

“One standout to me is a pitcher – Rebekah Stevens – and then the two Wilson twins, Hadley and Hannah,” he added. “Sophie Rominger is a pretty quick little girl. I am pleased already just watching them today with what they can do for us.”

Back to lead the Gophers are seniors Katelyn Boller, Peyton Ray, Kylie Burris and Holly Loveless.

The starting pitcher for Clinton Prairie over the last three years, Loveless finished her junior season with 101 strikeouts and a 3.83 earned run average.

“I am actually hoping that Holly, when called upon, will be able to go out there and just say ‘Give me the ball. Get on my back, and I will show you how to do it,’” Cooper said. “I think she has lacked that a little over the last three years. She has been a great kid. I just hope she can step it up now with it being her last year.”

At the plate, Loveless batted .404 with 23 hits, 12 RBIs, six doubles and 11 runs scored while Ray batted .400 with six RBIs and 14 runs scored on 20 hits, Burris batted .286 with 12 RBIs and seven runs scored on 14 hits, and Boller batted .278 with three RBIs and two doubles in just 18 at-bats.

“I think they have done well so far in our preseason workouts as far as commutating with the younger ones and keeping them in-tune to what happens and how we go about our practices,” Cooper said. “They have really done well.”

With that core group of seniors leading an experienced team that has added young talent, Coopers thinks this may be a season where the Gophers can accomplish a lot.

“I think it does (mean that),” he said. “Of course, we still have to play the games. In high school sports, I have seen the ebbs and flows of the seasons and how the years go through. It has been a few years since we have won a sectional, and maybe the opportunity is there again for us. With what I have seen today, I feel happy with what we’ve got because we do have some younger kids who will push some older kids. So, that will make us better.

“One of my goals is, with so many young kids along with my seniors, making sure they all have an opportunity to show what they can do,” he added. “It is only high school sports. I look at it as, they are only high school kids once. Try to give them an opportunity to showcase their selves a little bit. Let these kids play because that is what it is all about – participation.”

Cooper says he could like his Gophers to compete for a Hoosier Heartland Conference championship this season but knows that nobody will make it easy for them.

“There is Rossville, and Amanda (Szabela) has done a great job over there,” he said. “I think it could be a battle between us and them as far as the conference goes. She has done a great job of running the program over there, and she has some good kids who are seniors this year who will push us, no doubt.”

The Gophers open the season on March 22 with a 5 p.m. game versus the Harrison Raiders at West Lafayette.

“They are a bigger school, but I always tell the kids that you play these bigger schools so you can learn,” Cooper said. “Hopefully, you can compete with then, but learn from what they do, too.

“Right after (spring break), we come right back with North Montgomery (April 4, away) and Frontier (April 5, home), which is another good program. Sharon (Wright) does a nice job up there at Frontier, and they are no longer in our conference, thank you.”

Until the March 22 opener, the Gophers will be busy finding their roles and helping the freshmen start adjusting up varsity softball.

“We are still trying to figure out who is going to play where for us and who can fill-in where,” Cooper said.

“And then there is our pitching. I am really happy that we have Rebekah Stevens because I think that will help save Holly a little bit more this year. But, we will try to bring the freshmen along so that they are ready to jump in there when called upon.”