Softball preview: McHenry a Valley favorite

McHenry softball coach John DiFrancesca only needs to take a quick look around his infield to see the potential of his team.

It starts with junior pitcher Kristin Koepke, one of the area’s best pitchers, and continues right behind her with sophomore shortstop Alex Martens. An experienced and veteran-laden group also includes the return of seniors Rachel Ford at second base and Ashley Clingingsmith at first base.

Coming off a season in which the Warriors finished second in the Fox Valley Conference Valley Division and won 24 games en route to a regional title, it’s no surprise that McHenry is considered one of the favorites to capture the division title.

“If you combine experience with talent, my gosh, hopes are high I can’t lie,” DiFrancesca said. “It’s a nice mix of returning starters and a couple of new kids who are coming into the program.”

McHenry won’t have an easy path to the title. Cary-Grove is a perennial contender while Prairie Ridge is looking to successfully defend its FVC Valley crown. And after an impressive postseason run, Jacobs enters the season hoping to build off of last year. The Golden Eagles have the players to contend, led by senior third baseman Alyssa Lach and sophomore shortstop Sarah Murray, two of nine players returning.

“It should definitely give us confidence because we had a nice little run, beat the No. 1 seed in our regional,” Jacobs coach Jeremy Bauer said. “It shows we have the ability to do it and now hopefully we can fill in a couple of the missing pieces we had last year and go a little bit further.”

Crystal Lake Central, which shared the FVC Fox Division title last year with Grayslake North, has the talent to challenge for another title. They may have to do it without junior standout pitcher/shortstop Megan Mahaffy, who is working back from a torn ACL.

Tigers coach Brian Strombom said Mahaffy, who still needs to be officially cleared to play, is about three weeks away from getting back on the field. While having her in Central’s lineup would be an obvious boost, Strombom said he plans to ease her back onto the field to make sure Mahaffy doesn’t get pushed too hard too fast.

Strombom expects the Tigers’ pitching depth to shine in her absence but conceded that replacing Mahaffy’s bat in the lineup will take a team effort considering she hit .613 last year with eight home runs.

“I think, over time, this team can really develop,’ Strombom said. “I think it’s too early to say if we’re able to be up at the top of the conference, but I do like the potential that we have. … I have a feeling we can really improve a lot over the course of the season.”

In the Big Northern Conference, Marengo has some holes to fill in its lineup – which includes determining who will be the Indians’ No. 1 pitcher – but the Indians have the experience and talent to be considered one of the favorites for the BNC East Division title.

Richmond-Burton shouldn’t be overlooked either as the Rockets balance a mix of returning seniors with talented underclassman. Marian Central hopes to continue to improve while battling in the Suburban Christian Conference. Although they only have one level again this season, the Hurricanes feature 12 freshmen on varsity.

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