Elizabeth Forward coach Harry Rutherford welcomes back the most experienced softball team he has coached in eight years at the school.
The Warriors have six starters back and were ranked No. 2 in Class AAA in last week's Post-Gazette preseason rankings.
Not only is Elizabeth Forward experienced but the Warriors have plenty of experience playing together and playing for Rutherford. He has coached many of the players for the past six years -- since the time they were in middle school -- to making a run to the WPIAL Class AAA final last year and the high expectations that have followed them into this season.
Senior pitcher Portia McBride headlines the cast of returning starters. She maintained a 1.90 ERA last season while going 17-8 with 166 strikeouts and being named to the all-section team.
Junior corner infielders McKenna Kern and Ashley Baker were also named to the all-section team a year ago.
Kern, a first baseman, hit .406 while Baker, a third baseman, batted .371. Kern, Baker and senior catcher Virginia Roche are expected to lead the team offensively. Roche batted .390 last season.
Elizabeth Forward was 14-6 in the regular season last year and finished in a tie for second place with Thomas Jefferson in section play, but the Warriors got hot just in time for the playoffs.
They defeated both Indiana and Greensburg Salem by one run in the WPIAL postseason and upset Ambridge. But in the WPIAL final they had no answer for the pitching of Kaitlyn Kutchman and the hitting of Stacey Capp as they fell to Montour, 7-0.
To open this season Elizabeth Forward (4-0, 1-0) was able to play three games at the Ripken Experience in Myrtle Beach, S.C. The Warriors swept the competition at the event that included victories against the WPIAL's Burgettstown as well as Penn Charter and St. John Villa Academy of New York.
They added an 8-4 Section 3-AAA victory against West Mifflin Tuesday.
"We looked pretty solid in South Carolina," Rutherford said. "There are a lot of changes from last year's lineup position-wise."
With the pitcher/catcher combination of McBride and Roche returning, runs appear as if they will be hard to come by against Elizabeth Forward.
"Portia looks like she has improved on hitting her spots," Rutherford said. "We expect a lot out of her this year and Virginia is doing a real good job at catcher."
McBride will be playing an even bigger role this season than she did last year. Last season a designated hitter would bat for her. In the offseason she went to Rutherford and asked what she had to do to get into the batting order.
"I told her she needed to work harder at making contact and driving the ball," Rutherford said. "She has done that over the winter and with her travel team. She was a run-producer down at Myrtle Beach and has earned the right to hit."
McBride has made strides at pitching as well.
"Last year she just tried to overpower teams," Rutherford said. "This year she is thinking more about what pitches to throw, and throwing what pitches I am calling and throwing them where I want them.
"Last year she made some [critical] mistakes when it was 0-2 or 1-2. We wanted the ball off the plate, she missed the location and a lot of the times the ball left the yard or a big hit came out of it.
"In South Carolina I can probably count on one hand the number of pitches she missed."
Senior left fielder Katelyn Shinavski will return to the lineup this season. She was out for most of last season with a knee injury but returned in time for the playoffs and provided a crucial bat in the lineup. Shinavski is expected to bat second in the lineup.
The other outfield positions will be filled by right fielder Courtney Hrabosky and center fielder Jen Keefer, both returning junior starters.
A year after serving as a "designated player," sophomore Caitlyn Arico will start at shortstop and sophomore Kelsey Benedek will start at second base.
"We have a pretty experienced lineup," Rutherford said. "We are expecting big things out of them."