Saturday means the start of a new season for the Havre High softball program, and compared to most teams in the state, the Blue Ponies are still young.
And as the Central A Ponies continue to take steps in the right direction, they hope to improve on last season’s results that came from one of Havre’s most young and inexperienced programs they have ever housed.
Saturday the Ponies will be in Great Falls for the Great Falls Jamboree, and with 25 girls on HHS the roster, hopefully the Ponies are well on their way to a much better season. This year’s schedule has already been altered, but both the junior varsity and varsity squads will begin play this weekend. The junior varsity will travel to Cut Bank for a jamboree, while the varsity will face Great Falls High, Butte High, Laurel and Billings Senior in Great Falls.
Last year the Ponies finished their season with a conference record of 3-7, and an overall record of 6-11. They missed out on a state tournament berth, but did earn some impressive wins the second half of the season. After starting out 1-6 on the season, the Ponies did bounce back the second half with wins over Cut Bank, Whitefish and Hardin.
This year the schedule is almost identical to last year, meaning a lot of tough conference and non conference matchups at home and on the road. After this weekend, the Ponies will face the toughest conference opponent on their schedule in the Belgrade Panthers. From there, the Ponies will also see Browning, Columbia Falls, Livingston, Laurel and a slew of great talent at the Butte Central and Havre Invites. HHS will definitely have their hands full in the Central A, but they will also run into teams like Columbia Falls that 10 runned the Ponies twice last season.
If the Ponies want to dodge a slow start, they know they have to be playing pretty close to flawless right out of the gate.
“We have a pretty good idea of what we are up against,” Havre High’s second year head coach Mike Thill said. “Our goals this season is to qualify for state. We are the only entity in high school I think, that doesn’t’ have a playoff or district or divisionals, so right now we really need to turn in a good record if we want to qualify for state in Anaconda. From the very first pitch of the very first game, we have to be game ready.”
Earning a state bid means finishing as one of the top three teams in the conference. That won’t be easy with Belgrade, Lewistown and Livingston sitting at the top right now. Belgrade is still an early favorite for the No. 1 spot, but Livingston didn’t graduate one senior from last years team, and could very well return all 14 girls they had a season ago.
HHS may start on the outside looking in, but has some talent to lean on if they hope to bump one of those tope teams out of the upper ranks. And while pitching and defense weren’t exactly the Ponies shining strengths during the 2011 season, it needs to be during the 2012 season. Getting 10 runned a half a dozen times last year was a major factor in the losing record, and can’t be a relevant headline this season.
“We need our pitching to be stronger,” Thill said. “And we need our defense to step up from game one. Last year about mid season our defense settled in, but we started out awfully week, dropping fly balls in the outfield and throwing balls away in the infield. That has to be cleaned up from the first out on day one.”
Junior Davee McLeod pitched every varsity game last season, but the Ponies are looking to find her some relief this season. Sophomore Mackenna Barkus received some varsity pitches last year, and should look to help out a lot more this season. There is also a handful of freshman out of the 12 playing this season that pitch, and coach Thill is looking to groom one or two for the varsity rotation. Freshman Paige Henderson has already shown a lot of potential.
“We have four freshman girls that pitch,” Thill said. “And we will really need to develop one of them so that we can have a rotation. With MacLeod and Barkus. McLeod is valuable at other positions as well, so it would be nice to have another pitcher in the rotation so that we can move McLeod around and use her strengths everywhere.”
MacLeod showed she can play other positions in the infield as well as outfield, but also led the Ponies in hitting. As the leadoff batter she led in base hits, as well as in stolen bases and doubles.
But other key returning players include Clarissa Martin, Mary Lyons, Michaela Boles, Masha Barnekoff, Jacinta Finneman, Liz Facio, Sidney Huston and Katie Beck. Martin and Boles are the senior captains this season.
A new addition to the lineup is junior Lexi Olson. She is a solid athlete and is trying her hand at softball, not playing since her T-Ball days. She brings some depth to the roster, but most importantly, she brings speed.
Positions aren’t set just yet either. The Ponies still have plenty of work and time to finalize the roster, but the Ponies have a trend of shuffling during the season anyway. Anybody who hopes to play on the varsity lineup better be ready to field ground ball and chase down pop ups.
“So we still have a while to figure the roster and lineup out," Thill said. "Those four games against Class AA opponents (in Great Falls) are very beneficial to us.
“But the girls are working hard and there is definitely some potential here,” Thill added. “They have worked hard since day one on conditioning, so I am real happy so far. There has been a lot of good effort, and I have great coaching staff as well, that is making things easier as we get started.”
The Ponies are overcoming a disappointing season last year, but are hoping to continue to build the program. This year has already begun with great effort at practice, but the Ponies will get their first shot at completion at the Great Falls Jamboree on Saturday, where they will face four outstanding Class AA teams.