Havre Daily News Sports Editor
After years of waiting and hoping, the much-awaited debut of the Havre High fast pitch softball team will come on Saturday when the Ponies will travel to Whitefish for their season opener and the first official MHSA sanctioned game in school history.
Under the direction of longtime fast pitch aficionado Bob Evans, Sr., the Ponies will try to make their inaugural season in Class A a memorable one.
Thus far, the season has been fraught with cold weather. Havre has had a handful of outdoor practices, but got in a critical seven-inning intrasquad scrimmage on Monday.
"We haven't been outside as nearly as much as I would've liked," Evans said. "There is only so much you can do inside. But the scrimmage was big for us to see the girls in game situations."
Although it was just one game, it didn't take long for Evans to recognize the advantage some of his players had from playing on the traveling summer fast pitch team.
"It wasn't too hard," Evans said. "They just seemed to be a little better and little more comfortable out there."
Players like Kristin Evanson, Laura Zentmire, Kelsey Evans, Casey Benner, Whitney Barnekoff, Sjanetee D'Hooge and Katie McLeod benefited greatly from the summer season.
"There is really a carry-over from this summer," Evans said. "They played in more games than some of the other girls and it showed in the scrimmage."
One aspect of the scrimmage that particularly pleased Evans was the performances of his pitchers, led by senior Evanson.
"It was good to see our pitchers throw strikes," he said. "That was my biggest fear is not being able to throw strikes."
Instead, Evanson, Barnekoff, sophomore Kaci Owens and freshman Stacey Sheppard kept the ball right around the plate and didn't walk too many batters.
"We've had our pitchers working every day," Evans said. "But we haven't had them throwing too much because its still early."
Evans makes it no secret that Evanson will have to carry the bulk of the innings on the mound, while Barnekoff and Owens will hopefully give quality innings in relief and spot starts.
"She's going to be our workhorse," he said. "She isn't afraid to go out there and throw 14 innings for us in a day. Kristin has also really become a team leader for us."
Havre's pitching will also play a key role in aiding its other strength - team defense.
The entire infield all played summer ball and is anchored by Kelsey Evans at her shortstop with Barnekoff at third, Benner at second and Zentmire at first.
"We're really solid in the infield," Evans said. "Kelsey is just tough. She's as good as they come defensively. She really understands the game, the situations and where the plays need to be made."
D'Hooge will lead the outfield from her position in centerfield and will be flanked by host of possibilities including Owens, McLeod, Kyrie Barkley, Kendra Mader and Tereyl Shrauger.
"Sjanetee is a very solid centerfielder," Evans said. "She has a great arm and has plenty of experiences. We're going to try some different combinations at the other positions."
As for the all-important position of catcher, the duo of McKayla Patterson and Kyla Kelsey will handle the duties behind the plate.
"Our catchers are getting better with receiving, but they need to get better at throwing runners out,'' Evans said. "They are improving very quickly."
Even with the experience that Havre has, Evans is the first to point out that it pales in comparison to some its Class A foes.
"We've been working on so much fundamental stuff early on and trying to get in repetitions," Evans said. "We're still way behind where we need to be compared with other teams, especially fundamentals."
Another of those areas where Havre may be a little behind is hitting. Because Evans spent the first weeks of practice getting his defensive fundamentals down, there hasn't been as much time for hitting. But he knows that it will be a struggle at times.
"My big concern is our hitting," he said. "We just aren't going to be a team that scores eight to 10 runs a game. We are going to have to play small ball and find ways to manufacture runs.
"Hitting always takes longer to develop. We just want to put the ball in play consistently."
Every game for the Ponies is going to be a learning experience, but unfortunately most games will be against solid opponents. Havre's schedule is far from easy, featuring tough conference games as well as highly competitive tournaments in Butte and Frenchtown.
"From what I understand, we play in one of the toughest conferences in Class A," Evans said. "It has won four of the last seven state championships. We're kind of getting thrown in the fire little bit."
With that in mind, Evans is keeping his goals realistic and prudent.
"My goal is that the girls stay enthused about the game and get better every time they step on the field," he said. "We want to be competitive and make every game go seven innings and hopefully give ourselves the opportunities to win."