MUSCATINE, Iowa – The offense features a nice blend of speed and power.
The defense is experienced, fast and sure-handed.
That is the underlying question for Muscatine High School’s softball team this summer.
“If we can keep the ball in the park, we’ll be pretty good,” said head coach Dennis Schuur, whose squad opens the 2012 campaign Monday night at home against Iowa City High.
The Muskies, who were 34-8 and within a victory of the state tournament last year, rode the arm of all-stater Kayla Gaunt for the past four seasons. With her graduating, Schuur looks for a new name or names to emerge in the pitching circle.
Stephanie Burns, the lone senior on the squad, is the front-runner to be the No. 1 pitcher, but she is being pushed by three others – juniors Bailey Blake, Taylor Carey and sophomore Anna Manjoine.
“Having Kayla ahead of me, I was always the No. 2,” said Burns, who was 9-2 with a 2.42 ERA in 75-plus innings last summer. “This year people think, ‘Can she fill the shoes?’ It has pushed me this winter to work even harder than I have in the past.
“I’ve got to help this team out now. I’m looking forward to stepping up and being a leader this year.”
While Schuur has confidence in his staff, he also understands they aren’t overpowering and will surrender runs. It boils down to hitting spots, keeping opponents off-balance and playing sound defense.
“It wears on my patience a little because I’m used to the 3-1 and 4-1 games,” he said. “We’re going to have to score a lot of runs to win because we’re going to give up runs.
“We just can’t give up a lot of crooked numbers in the same inning.”
Muscatine has plenty of pop in its lineup.
Schuur said sophomores Katie Shoultz and Emily Clemens will anchor the top of the lineup. The middle of the order is explosive with Megan Butler, Taylor Berry, Leti Lerma and Kaylea Rusch.
Butler batted .400 last season with a school-record 18 doubles, eight homers and 39 RBIs in earning second team all-state accolades, while Berry and Lerma teamed for six homers and nearly 50 RBIs.
Berry devoted more time in the offseason in hopes of returning to the form she displayed in her freshman campaign.
“(Last year) was really hard on me, but I’ve tried to take it as a learning experience,” she said. “I’ve been working more out of practice and am definitely hitting better than last year. It is just working up to where I personally want to be.”
Even though Lerma was undecided on going out for much of the spring, Schuur said she’s been “tearing the cover off the ball” in early workouts.
“If we can get people on base for Butler, Berry and Lerma, they are going to do some damage,” he noted. “All three are focused.”
Butler has been seeking to find her groove from last season.
“I’ve been changing my batting stance quite a bit to get back to where I was at,” she said. “Last year I was pretty confident when I was going to hit well. Right now, it is pretty random.”
And with some inexperience in the circle, Butler believes situational hitting could be a make-or-break component to the season.
“We need to hit,” she noted. “At times last year we couldn’t come up with that big hit. We have strong hitting and we need to show that.”
In addition to Gaunt, Muscatine graduated two other critical parts of its defense in catcher Erika Wagner and center fielder Amanda Clemens.
Berry and Kaylee Jones will shoulder the catching responsibilities, and Rusch will join Lerma, Clemens and Butler on the infield.
With Allison Schmoldt deciding not to come out, the outfield will be comprised of Rachel Beatty (left field), Shoultz (center) and Jones (right). When Jones catches, Schuur said Sarah Lothspeich will get the nod in right.
“I’m excited about our outfield,” the head coach said. “It is one of the fastest outfields we’ve ever had. We could have three track runners who have good speed out there. We should be able to go get it.”
With those pieces, Muscatine is confident it can be near the top of the Mississippi Athletic Conference race.
Pleasant Valley and North Scott return a wealth of experience, and Davenport West and Bettendorf will be formidable, too.
“With the offense and returning letter winners, we should be in the mix,” Schuur said. “The pitching has to hold up. If not, we’ll finish in the middle of the pack.”
Schuur said he won’t be afraid to mix and match pitchers.
During a spring league game last week, the first in which he could coach, he used three pitchers in one game.
Unlike previous seasons, Schuur has more options at his disposal.
“It is a work in progress, but we’ve got to find that right combination,” he said. “If we throw someone who has a good drop ball one game, we need to come back with someone who has a riseball so we’re not staying on the same plane.”
If nothing else, Schuur said the four are ready to embrace the pressure.
“I think our pitchers are looking forward to the challenge of stepping out of Kayla’s shadow and making a name for themselves,” he said.