FAIRMONT - Strong up the middle.
If the old sports adage holds true, second-year Fairmont head coach Terry Ehlert and his Cardinal softball team possess the potential to improve upon last year's 6-13 campaign on the prep diamond.
Senior second baseman Courtney Whitmore and junior shortstop Kristen Campe - two of the red-and-white's tri-captains for 2013 - return to anchor the heart of the infield, while senior tri-captain Mariah Thate will patrol center field for a second straight season.
BACK?TO THE BALLPARK — Members of the Fairmont Cardinal softball team opening the season by playing host to Worthington on Friday at Cardinal Park in Fairmont include, front row (l-r): Kristen Campe, Courtney Whitmore, Taylor Schultze, Mariah Thate and Micaela Gochanour. Back row: Head coach Terry Ehlert, Tieryn Arens, Jennifer Svoboda, Mikayla Krzywicki, Aly Eversman, Kaylee Sauck, Allison Moeller and assistant coach Chuck Allen. Not pictured Courtney Guetter. Photo by Leanna Becker
Whitmore and Campe not only bring back a solid double-play combination from a defensive perspective, but the Sentinel All-Area tandem also return lethal lumber to the batter's box this spring.
Whitmore pounded out a team-leading 23 hits to produce a whopping .442 batting average to top a Fairmont lineup that erupted for a vastly-improved .335 team hitting clip in 2012.
The hard-hitting Whitmore also ignited the Cardinals' offensive attack by collecting a team-best 18 RBIs en route to earning all-South Central Conference honors.
Campe also eclipsed the .400 offensive plateau by drilling 20 hits, including a team-leading eight doubles, en route to a .408 batting average a year ago.
The sure-handed shortstop also topped the team by generating a .547 on-base percentage, helped by drawing 13 walks, and crossed the plate 14 times.
"I think we're going in the right direction from a hitting standpoint," said Ehlert, whose team is scheduled to display its new uniforms when it plays host to Worthington in a 4:30 p.m. season-opener on Friday at Cardinal Park in Fairmont. "The girls have been working hard in the batting cage, so I think we'll be solid offensively again.
"We have our entire infield back from last year and three pitchers with varsity experience returning, so those are positives."
Junior Allison Moeller, who produced a .314 batting average, and sophomore Micaela Gochanour, who generated a .375 hitting clip, each return to anchor the Cardinals' defense at first and third base, respectively.
Moeller scored a dozen runs, drew 11 walks and drove in seven runs last season, while Gochanour collected 21 hits and scored a second-best team total of 16 runs last spring.
"I really don't know what to attribute it (hitting success) to last season, but I think the girls have more confidence when they step to the plate," Ehlert said. "Now we just need to maintain where we were offensively last year, and improve from a defensive standpoint.
"We want to get to the point where we make the routine plays routinely."
The fleet-footed Thate will anchor the outfield, and likely will be flanked by junior Courtney Guetter and sophomore Aly Eversman - along with senior Jennifer Svoboda. Guetter, an all-SCC choice during her freshman season, is battling back from back-to-back knee injuries that forced her to miss the entire 2012 campaign.
"We'll see how her rehab is progressing and make sure she's 100 percent before putting her back in the lineup," Ehlert said in reference to Guetter.
Eversman also will add depth to the Cardinals' pitching rotation that features senior right-hander Taylor Schultze and junior right-hander Mikayla Krzywicki.
"We (coaching staff) haven't finalized our decision on whether Taylor or Mikayla will start our season-opener, but all three pitchers will get a lot of innings this season," Ehlert said.
Freshman phenom Tieryn Arens will get the starting nod behind the plate, while senior Kaylee Sauck also will catch as well as serve as the Cardinals' all-around utility player.
Defending Class AA state champion New Ulm will represent Fairmont's No. 1 rival in both SCC action and the Section 3AA postseason tournament.