The McLean High girls’ softball team reached the pinnacle of heights last spring by capturing its first ever Virginia State AAA championship. The Highlanders, over several seasons leading up to the marvelous 2010 campaign, had gotten progressively better and better and slowly become one of the top teams in the Northern Region.
And it all came together last year as the Highlanders combined talented, veteran leadership with a top notch group of underclassmen. Although McLean finished runner-up to rival Madison High in both the Liberty District and Region postseason tournaments, the determined squad put it all together for three straight games at states to capture the state crown, the title game victory coming over Lee-Davis High (Mechanicsville), 4-2, in the finals game played June 12 at Westfield High School.
McLean lost five starters – shortstop Lauren McColgan, first baseman Megan Sullivan, catcher Carolyn Gilbertson, second baseman Brittany McCray, and outfielder Lauren Sutherland – from last year’s state championship team to graduation, but still has a boatload of talent according to veteran head coach Maurice Tawil.
“Expectations were high last year and will be high this year,” said Tawil, whose team was scheduled to open the new season this week with a pair of district home games versus visiting Marshall on Tuesday, March 22 and Jeffferson High this Friday evening, March 25. “We have the benefit of the [state title] victory. We have a tall order this year but it’s easier for [the players] to buy into [team philosophy] because of our success. It is an experienced team.”
<b>LAST YEAR’S TEAM</b>, the first Highlander squad to ever qualify for the state playoffs, was spear-headed by a fantastic defense which consistently, throughout the season, made both the routine and sometimes exceptional plays in the field. The stellar play with the gloves was complimented by the solid pitching of ace Jamie Bell as well as a batting line-up that made steady contact on the ball and had a knack of hitting well in the clutch.
Tawil said this year’s team, which consists of nine returning players across the roster, has the potential to achieve great things again. The defense, he said, is a work in progress and getting better by the day. But having lost such fine defensive players to graduation from last year’s club will be hard to replace. Bell, a senior right-hander, is back on the mound this spring. Her presence and ability to make big pitches will help the team’s defensive transition, with several new starters in the line-up, go smoother.
“She’s pitching better and better,” said Tawil, of Bell’s early season showing on the hill.
Bell’s new batterymate at catcher this season is sophomore Maddie Moore, the team’s backup at the position last year.
“She has power [at the plate] and is an excellent receiver,” said Tawil, of Moore’s game.
The strength of this year’s McLean team could be its potentially lethal batting attack. Bell, who batted around .500 last year, will be the Highlanders’ leadoff batter. She is a solid contact hitter and has good speed to fit the leadoff bill. Other key batsmen will include senior third baseman Jessie Straub, who batted over .500 in 2010 and led McLean in both home runs and RBIs, and junior clean-up hitter Allison Wilhelm, the team’s athletic, versatile right fielder who will also likely play some innings at either of the corner infield positions.
“Last year, we were a tremendous defensive team,” said Tawil. “We did pitch well and were a good hitting team. This year we will be led by our hitting. We do have some power up and down the line-up. I would like to see us continue to get better on defense. We are making great strides there. We’re trying to duplicate [in the field] what we did last year.”
McLean’s success of last year when it went 25-5 and enjoyed so much postseason success will be hard to duplicate. But the Highlanders are ready to give it a go.
“I’m pleasantly surprised where we are right now given what we’ve lost [graduation-wise],” said Tawil.