A lot of things have changed in the Havre High girls softball program from last year to now.
The Blue Ponies have lost several big names from their roster and are now under the direction of a new head coach. But with rebuilding not in the Ponies’ vocabulary, hopefully HHS can pick up right where it left off last season, with the program's best run at the state tournament in its brief history.
Last season the Ponies had a magical run. In their first three trips to the state tournament the Central A Ponies went 0-6. But last season the Ponies made their way to Billings and recorded three total wins, over Anaconda, Sidney and Laurel before ending their season shy of the state title.
And though HHS lost big time names such as Holly Cartwright (third baseman), Kelli Kelsey (shortstop), Abigail Ita (pitcher/center fielder) and Tabitha Myers (pitcher), new, but experienced and veteran head coach Mike Theil is excited and confident to begin a new season.
“I am really excited to be back in Havre” Theil said. “And it’s an honor to take over for Bob Evans (former HHS head coach of five years). I have never been in a community that has support like this for softball. It just amazes me and keeps me excited and it’s just an honor to finish my career where I started.
“We have a lot of replacing to do and a lot of reloading,” Theil added. “I don’t like to use the term rebuilding because if you keep telling yourself that you are rebuilding, you have a defeatist attitude that you’re not going to win. We would just like to reload and hope that some of the younger kids that didn’t have the chance to start will step up and fill some of those roles.”
Theil is a Havre native and graduated from Havre High in the early 1960’s. His fastpitch career began about the same time, when he pitched in the Havre Men’s Fastpitch League, but then moved on to coaching. Theil started the Florence program in 1997 and coached there for 10 years before retiring after the 2006 season. Now coming out of retirement and returning home to Havre, Theil will now coach on the same Sixth Avenue Field he used to play on.
The Ponies know they have their work cut out for them this season, but they have already shown they are willing to work for a shot at another successful season.
Starting in November, and going through December, January, February and right up until practice began, the Blue Pony program has already taken full advantage of open gym opportunities set up by coach Theil.
And this spring, the main focus early on has been fundamentals. The Ponies aren’t up to anything extreme or fancy, instead it’s been things like catching and throwing with correct technique that have gotten the Ponies new season off to an already positive and successful start.
“The girls are buying into the system that it is important to throw correctly,” Theil said. “I am a real stickler on the fundamentals; we will do them over and over to get it correct. I am just trying to instill the little things right now, and the girls have been awfully good about trying the things I am implementing and that’s all you can really ask for as a coach.
“We would like to qualify for the state tournament,” Theil added. “Bob Evans did such a nice job with the program and we just want to see if we can now work on getting to the next level with more consistency.”
HHS took a hit with the loss of Cartwright, Kelsey, Ita and Myers. But with Ciara Donovan (right field) and Jordan LaSalle (junior varsity pitcher) choosing not to return, the Ponies took another big hit.
Donovan left a hole in the outfield, and LaSalle would have been key to the varsity pitching rotation this year. With Lasalle gone, sophomore Davee McLeod will most likely handle all of the varsity pitching duties for most of the season. McLeod is a talented pitcher, but earned her varsity reps last season on first base. Freshman McKenna Barkus may also see varsity time on the mound, but will handle the junior varsity pitching duties for the most part, as she gets broken into high school softball.
Seniors Chelsea Nottingham (catcher), Andrea Nault (left field) and Dylann Williams (second base) are the only three varsity starters returning this season. And with some moving around still to be done, Nault will most likely make the move to center field and Williams may see action at short stop this season instead.
Other key returners include junior Clarrissa Martin (third base), sophomore Roxann Jensen (second base), senior Alex Herrig (first base), sophomore Mary Lyons (left field) and junior Michaela Boles (right field). Junior Devyn Carpenter and senior Alexandra Seigel could also play key roles this season.
But the Blue Ponies also have nine freshman that may not get huge amounts of varsity time this season, but could very well keep the success of the program going in the near future.
Newcomers to the HHS team include Masha Barnekoff, Katie Beck, China Bohn, Alicia Borst, Jacinta Finneman, Sydne Huston, Kylee Kaul, Kali Kirkegard and Taylor Stokes.
The talent pool is good this year for the Ponies, but it will be a tough road through the Central A conference, as the Ponies have limited varsity experience.
The Browning Indians have struggled to put together a really competitive varsity squad over the last few seasons. But the Lewistown Golden Eagles and Livingston Rangers should test the Ponies. The Eagles return both of their starting pitchers from a season ago and the Rangers have proven to be up and coming over the last couple seasons.
But the real test will come from the Belgrade Panthers and Butte Central Maroons. The Maroons have a lot of returning talent and have a good shot at bringing home state hardware with two returning pitchers as well. But the Panthers will be the toughest conference team the Ponies face after losing just one senior.
“Belgrade can win the state championship,” Theil said. “They certainly have the personnel. They lost one senior pitcher, but they are probably better off without her and will be awfully tough to beat. Thee girls have just been working really hard, but you don’t have the luxury in our conference to experiment, so we better be ready to go coming right out of the gate.”
During the regular season the Ponies will face tough teams like Belgrade, Butte Central, Columbia Falls and Laurel. They will also see tough talent at tournaments such as the Havre and Butte Central Invites. But HHS will begin its season at the Great Falls Jamboree this weekend.