By MICHAEL KELLY
Recorder Sports Staff
FORT PLAIN -- Heading into the 2013 high school softball season, the Fort Plain Lady Hilltoppers return their core from a season ago when the club was the winner of the Western Athletic Conference North Division.
The familiarity this year's squad has with each other is apparent in the unyielding similarity between the answers of several players when asked what the goal is for this season.
"Do the same thing as last year, but go further," says senior infielder Allehah Van Loan, an answer echoed word for word by senior outfielder Jenna Barhydt.
"The same thing as we did, just to go farther in sectionals," senior infielder Erin Nellis offers.
"Go farther than we did last year," chimes in senior pitcher Jamie Fredericks. "We got knocked out in the first round of sectionals last year -- it was rough; it was a big loss -- so we want to go further than we did."
The Lady Hilltoppers just may have the requisite talent to make good on their wish. Fort Plain lost only three everyday starters from a year ago, returning its aforementioned senior starters, freshman catcher Kendra Trembley and junior shortstop Abby Boyer from last season's regular-season champions.
"We're very lucky in that we didn't have to replace too many players," says Fredericks. "But we lost some key outfielders, so that's been tough on the outfield."
While new Fort Plain head coach Crystallee Quell -- who takes over for Katie McCumber -- has some lineup figuring to take care of before the team's Thursday opener against Canajoharie, the club should be able to make up for most of its lost production with internal improvements. Boyer and Trembley, both underclassmen, were two of the team's top run producers a year ago, while the squad also regains the talents of junior Haley Kilmartin, who missed the 2012 season with a knee injury.
"We're definitely coming back if not the same, than better than we were last year," Van Loan says.
"We have young talent, along with a lot of seasoned players," says Quell. "They're a great group of girls, too. ... I've been very impressed with the leadership."
Quell says it has been an adjustment getting used to her new charges -- "They come with a lot of character," she says -- but she thinks the preseason has gone well in getting the players acquainted with their new leader. Nellis says the players agree with that sentiment.
"It's gone great. She's awesome," says Nellis. "I've talked to a couple of teammates about it and we're all pretty excited for the season to get going with her."
Quell says she wants to use the early part of the season to get a better handle on her team, along with instilling some of her own flavor with the team. Helping Quell implement some of her strategies -- she says she wants the Lady Hilltoppers to play more of a "thinking game," and utilize small-ball techniques more often -- will be her stable of similar-thinking seniors. After last year's disappointing finish in the first round of sectionals, Fredericks says this year's seniors are determined to make this season end differently.
"It does feel a little bit different as a senior," says Fredericks. "We're kind of in charge, we know what we're doing and we're confident."