Softball preview: Concord looks to go back to back, and D-II teams prepare for stiff competition

 Concord pitcher Maddy Wachter (second from right) is surrounded by teammates Sarah Taylor (8) and Brooke Wyatt (7) as Lillian Hacket rushes in after the Tide got the last out to win the Division I softball championship last June at Plymouth State University. The Crimson Tide has plenty of that championship talent coming back this spring, but they’ll also have to work with a small varsity roster.

Concord pitcher Maddy Wachter (second from right) is surrounded by teammates Sarah Taylor (8) and Brooke Wyatt (7) as Lillian Hacket rushes in after the Tide got the last out to win the Division I softball championship last June at Plymouth State University. The Crimson Tide has plenty of that championship talent coming back this spring, but they’ll also have to work with a small varsity roster. GEOFF FORESTER / Monitor staff

Concord left fielder Kennedy Craigue makes a diving catch for the second out of the sixth inning during the Division I softball championship last June. Craigue and the Crimson Tide held on for a 3-2 win over Winnacunnet.

Concord left fielder Kennedy Craigue makes a diving catch for the second out of the sixth inning during the Division I softball championship last June. Craigue and the Crimson Tide held on for a 3-2 win over Winnacunnet. GEOFF FORESTER / Monitor staff

The Concord High School state champions pose for photographs after winning the Division I softball title last June at Plymouth State.

The Concord High School state champions pose for photographs after winning the Division I softball title last June at Plymouth State. GEOFF FORESTER / Monitor staff

Coe-Brown’s Courtney Thomas (10) celebrates with her teammates at home plate after hitting a three-run home run in last year’s D-II title game win over Kingswood.

Coe-Brown’s Courtney Thomas (10) celebrates with her teammates at home plate after hitting a three-run home run in last year’s D-II title game win over Kingswood. CHIP GRIFFIN / Photos By Chip

Coe-Brown righfielder Haile Comeau slides home safely as John Stark catcher Ruby Dykstra bobbles the ball during their Division II softball semifinal at Plymouth State University last June. Comeau is back as the Bears look to repeat last year’s championship victory.

Coe-Brown righfielder Haile Comeau slides home safely as John Stark catcher Ruby Dykstra bobbles the ball during their Division II softball semifinal at Plymouth State University last June. Comeau is back as the Bears look to repeat last year’s championship victory. GEOFF FORESTER / Monitor staff

By ERIC RYNSTON-LOBELand DAN ATTORRI

Monitor staff

Published: 04-02-2024 1:10 PM

Modified: 04-03-2024 10:15 AM


After coming agonizingly close to winning state championships in 2021 and 2022, Concord High softball finally cleared the hurdle last June when it beat Winnacunnet, 3-2, for the seventh title in program history, capping a 20-1 season.

This year, the Crimson Tide return key starters including pitchers Sarah Taylor and Maddy Wachter and catcher Delaney Duford. Despite having a roster of just 11 players, the collective talent and experience of the group positions Concord well entering the 2024 campaign.

What’s different this year, though, is that the returning players don’t have the agony of a championship game loss to serve as motivation. Maintaining that focus on repeating the success of last season is something head coach Duke Sawyer said he’s made sure to address with his players, even though he noted they are still a self-motivated group.

“They really wanted it (last year) because of the year before, how we lost it, that 1-0 game against Exeter in eight innings. I didn’t have to say much last year,” Sawyer said. “This year, now that you’ve won it, I do have to motivate them a little bit more, talk about it a little bit more. I don’t want any type of letdown — which I haven’t seen — but I don’t want that to happen, either.

“It’s motivation to repeat, too. It doesn’t happen a whole lot, so that’s motivation in itself.”

The outfield will be one of the biggest question marks entering the season after Concord graduated two of its three outfielders, Kennedy Craigue and Olivia Crawford, last year. However, the Tide did add depth to the pitching staff with junior Avery MacDonald and freshman Maggie Taylor joining Wachter and Sarah Taylor in the circle.

Returning Duford behind the plate is also a major plus.

“By far the best catcher in Division I,” Sawyer said. “She sees the whole field so well. Studies the other players. She knows where to set the outfield, knows who might bunt, who’s quick. She’s another coach on the field. There’s no doubt about it. … I don’t know what we’d do without her, to tell you the truth.”

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Snow and rain has forced the team inside for the first part of the season, but when Concord takes the field for its first regular season game on April 9 at Windham High School, expect to see a pretty well-oiled machine right out of the gate.

BOW

Division: II.

Coach: Cassidy Emerson (first year).

Last year: 10-7, reached prelims.

Returning starters: Emma Kelly, sr.; Ella Roos, sr.; Lilly Wright, sr.

Top newcomers: Raegan Wyman, fr.; Taylor Ouellette, fr.

Outlook: The Falcons graduated Player of the Year and four-year ace Hannah McGonigle but have a strong class of eight freshmen.

“We are looking to grow as a group and really lean on our returners,” Emerson said. “Our three seniors have stepped up and helped these freshmen during our first few weeks of the season. The team goal is to improve every day and make an impact in the division as a very young group. We are lucky to have this group moving into the season with a new coaching staff.”

Teams to beat: Kingswood, Pembroke.

COE-BROWN

Division: II.

Coach: Dave Allis (seventh year).

Last year: 16-3, D-II champions.

Returning starters: Jayden Porter, sr., P/1B; Annie Jerome, sr., IF; Kiley Murphy, sr., OF; Haile Comeau, jr., OF; Bella Pelletier, jr., IF/P; Brook Orluk, jr., OF/IF; Kylie Bienik, so., IF/P.

Top newcomers: Judi Quinney, sr., OF; Saere McGuinness, sr., OF/IF; Madeline Lovett, jr., C/OF; Addison Coffin, so., 1B/3B; Reilly West, fr., C/OF.

Outlook: The Bears lost five strong seniors up the middle of their championship lineup (including First Team ace Madi Decota), “but ‘next player up’ mentality and preparation has us very well-positioned to compete,” according to Allis.

“Our goals are as simple as they’ve always been – approach every game with respect and as if our opponent is the greatest team on earth and have as much fun as possible.”

Teams to beat: “D-II has become an incredibly competitive division over the past 10 years, everyone is tough,” Allis said.

JOHN STARK

Division: II.

Coach: Denis Kolehmainen (second year).

Last year: 14-4, reached semifinals.

Returning starters: Ava Rivers, jr.; Eva Grolljahn, sr.; Haley Stafford, jr.; Savannah Chapman, so.; Katie Lorenz, so.; Lexi Boudreau, jr.; Addy Pelletier, so.; Kira Linstad, jr.; Emily Fredette, jr.

Top newcomers: Olivia Clancy, so.; Alex Savaria, sr.; Noelle Shelly, sr.; Sophie Diamond, sr.; Edie Fischer, sr.; Leah Brouillet, fr.; Jaelyn Silvey, fr.

Outlook: “We should be a solid hitting team again this year and we’ve filled in a few of our losses to graduation last year,” Kolehmainen said. “This year we will be focusing on getting stronger on defense.”

Rivers made the First Team last season and is one of nine returning players with significant varsity experience.

MERRIMACK VALLEY

Division: II.

Coach: Kevin O’Brien (fourth year).

Last year: 10-7, reached prelims.

Returning starters: Liv Seeley, sr., IF/C; Julia Herrmann, sr., C/IF; Addy Allen, sr., OF;

Kayla Smith, jr., C/IF/P; Caydence Allberg, jr., IF/P; Katelyn Herrmann, so., OF.

Top newcomers: Abby James Bentzler, jr., IF; Ryleigh Perry, so., IF/P; Gabby Jones, fr., IF/OF; Julia Kelly, fr., IF/OF; Nora Lyford, fr., IF/P; Kailee Rosario, fr., IF.

Outlook: “We are blending our experienced players with our new players and are looking forward to being competitive in a very talented Division II,” O’Brien said. “As in all sports, consistent play and execution will be the driving force to our success. We have very good senior and junior leadership and are confident that they will take us down the path to state tournament play.”

Teams to beat: Kingswood, Campbell, Coe Brown, Oyster River, Laconia.

PEMBROKE

Division: II.

Coach: Eric Ives (first year).

Last year: 8-9, reached prelims.

Returning starters: Morgan Clauthier, so.; Taylor Renna, sr.; Jaylin Gibbs, sr.; Natalia Dube, jr.

Top newcomers: Lily Gagnon, fr.

Outlook: After coaching the Pembroke JV team, Ives is taking over a young varsity squad.

“I have a very young team, and my goal for the team is to make the playoffs first and foremost,” Ives said. “Our biggest concern is going to be pitching. (Sophomore) Ally Tessier is going to be our ace and is a great pitcher, but after her is a big question mark for us. For strengths, we have a lot of speed and will look for ways to take advantage of that.”

Teams to beat: Kingswood, Coe-Brown.

BELMONT

Division: III.

Coach: Bill Clary (15th year).

Last year: 6-10, did not make tournament.

Returning starters: Darci Stone, sr., OF; Abbi Paquette, sr., OF; Avery VonKadich, sr., 1B; Riley Cotnoir, jr., C; Madison Smith, jr., P/3B.

Top newcomers: Lyla McSheffrey, fr., C; Molly O’Connell, fr., 3B/SS; Falyn Sicard, fr., SS/2B; Bailey Perkins, fr., P/IF.

Outlook: After finishing one win shy of advancing to the tournament, the Raiders are looking to bounce back from a disappointing season. Seven of the 15 players on the Belmont roster are freshmen, and “several freshmen will need to step up into starting positions right away. … Having seven freshmen was a much-needed boost to the program,” Clary said.

Smith and Cotnoir return as the starting pitching and catching duo, but Cotnoir is recovering from an offseason injury and freshman arms will take the circle when Smith isn’t pitching. McSheffrey will fill in for Cotnoir, and O’Connell, Sicard and Perkins look solid in the infield, but it will take some time for the young squad to settle into its final rotation.

“Our first goal is to improve on last season; in my eyes, that must include making the playoffs,” Clary said. “A home game is even better. If we can got those freshmen playing well, the sky is the limit.”

Teams to beat: Prospect Mountain.

BISHOP BRADY

Division: III.

Coach: Shane Baron (third year).

Last year: 6-10, did not make tournament.

Returning starters: Payton Bryson, jr., SS/P; Kimble Rose, jr.; Kylee Potter, sr.; Abby Tyrell, so.; Ava Archambault, so.

Top newcomers: Madison Mundy, fr., P; Stella Prieto, fr., 3B; Mia Wagner, sr., OF.

Outlook: After finishing one win shy of postseason qualification last year, the Giants are hoping for better fortunes in 2024.

“We have everything needed this year to win games with a solid defense and lineup, and we have depth within the circle,” Baron said. “The team will be led by Payton at the top of the lineup. Payton has a knack to get on base and find her way around (if Payton is on base, we win games).”

Bryson was named to the D-III First Team last year, while Rose and Tyrell were Second Team picks.

“The team gets along great. They laugh and cheer each other on no matter what,” said Baron adding that, “(With a short preseason) we hope to come out firing right away.”

Teams to beat: Prospect Mountain, St. Thomas.

HILLSBORO-DEERING

Division: III.

Coach: Allan Kingsbury (second year).

Last year: 5-11, did not make tournament.

Outlook: The Hillcats are hoping to make the tournament after finishing two wins shy of advancing last year.

“Coaches are very excited for the snow to melt and get out on the field,” Kingsbury said. “We have a great mix of returning players and six new players, including our freshman pitcher. We are looking forward to a competitive season and making the playoffs.”

Teams to beat: Prospect Mountain.

HOPKINTON

Division: III.

Coach: Liz Kovar (first year).

Last year: 13-6, reached semifinals.

Returning starters: Ally Duval, sr., C/IF; Steph Elrick, sr., P/1B; Lizz Holmes, sr., CF.

Top newcomers: Aurelia Salce, fr., C/IF.

Outlook: Kovar takes over for Hopkinton athletic director Dan Meserve, who also served as the program’s head coach for the past 17 seasons. Elrick (Second Team All-State) returns as the ace in the pitching rotation, while Duval’s experience behind the plate and leadership will lighten the pressure on a younger, less experienced infield. Holmes (First Team) will anchor the outfield.

“As we are returning only three starters from last year’s team, we look to our sophomore group to fill in the gaps,” Kovar said.

Sophomores Kinley St. Cyr (infield) and Paige Boudette (outfield) are among a large group of sophomores who could fill in holes in the lineup.

Teams to beat: Prospect Mountain, St. Thomas, Gilford.

KEARSARGE

Division: III.

Coach: Erin Ruckman (third year).

Last year: JV only.

Returning starters: Gia Crandall, sr.; Terra LeBlanc, sr.

Top newcomers: Baylee Biagiotti, fr.; Emma Dubaere, fr.; Star Henion, fr.

Outlook: The Cougars are returning to varsity action this season with 10 freshmen on the 14-player roster.

“We are all about team building and communication,” Ruckman said. “Although we have two experienced players leading our team, Gia Crandall and Terra LeBlanc, we are overall going to lack the confidence of seasoned play. Our freshman class does have some talent, so it will be fun to see if we can translate that into wins this season.”

Teams to beat: Newport, Prospect Mountain.

WINNISQUAM

Division: III.

Coach: Mark Dawalga (sixth year).

Last year: 1-15, did not make tournament.

Returning starters: Lucy Prunier, sr., 3B/OF; Bella Dill, jr., 1B/2B; Kenzie Bassett, so., SS/2B; Carmilla Cote, so., C/2B/OF; Alexis Mingolla, so., 1B/OF; Ava Sargent, so., P/OF; Caidyn Carter, so., 2B/OF.

Top newcomers: Payton Collins, jr., OF; Charlie Kimball, fr., OF; Addison Bernier, fr., C/3B; Danica Weymouth, fr., P.

Outlook: “We will really be young this year and will look to improve every day,” Dawalga said. “We are very excited to see what this group can add to our returning core of players. We will lean on Prunier and Dill for leadership early on as we get everyone set into their new roles. We are returning five sophomores and will look for them to take the next step. One thing with this group is that they really want to go out and compete. The togetherness of this group has been really outstanding to see. We are super excited to get our season started.”

Teams to beat: Prospect Mountain, Gilford, Conant.

FRANKLIN

Division: IV.

Coach: Maddie Trefethen (seventh year).

Last year: 4-12, did not make tournament.

Returning starters: Lily Cornell, fr.; Ava Kolacz, so.; Olivia Sylvester, sr.; Savannah McPhail, sr.

Top newcomers: Jaylynne Ladnay, fr.; Layleah Wells, fr.; Sierra Ward, fr.

Outlook: The Tornadoes are a young team but have Cornell returning as the starting pitcher and Kolacz returning at catcher.

“We’ve been focused on hitting and correcting smaller mistakes in the field early on so that we are game-ready,” Trefethen said. “Our team goal is to make it to the playoffs for the first time in quite a few years. Lily Cornell looks to record her 500th strikeout this season with help from (Kolacz).”

PITTSFIELD

Division: IV.

Coach: Gordon Bilodeau (fifth year).

Last year: 13-4, reached prelims.

Outlook: The Panthers had a strong regular season, earning the No. 4 seed in the D-IV tournament before getting upset by No. 13 Epping. Pittsfield is hoping that another strong season translates into a deeper playoff run this time around.