Last year, the Pilgrim softball team knew it had the talent to contend with just about anybody in Division II.
But an up-and-down 9-7 regular season ended in disappointment, as the Pats dropped their first-round playoff game 14-10 to Prout.
It wasn’t the way anybody wanted the year to end. Yet with the majority of the team being underclassmen, it didn’t take head coach Bill Aquilante very long to turn his attention toward next year.
Now, next year is here, and the excitement around the program is as high as it’s ever been in the five years that Aquilante has been head coach.
So are the expectations.
“We’re pretty set to go this year,” Aquilante said. “We have a lot of experience. We have as much experience as we’ve ever had. Six seniors, eight returning starters, other players who have started games before. The expectations are a lot higher than they have been previously.”
The Pats lost only three seniors from last year’s team – Annie Shalvey, Kelsey Rix and Hannah Pickering – and even though they were all strong players, there should be no problem filling any void left by their departures.
With 14 players on the roster, all of whom Aquilante thinks can be major contributors, quality depth around the diamond is not an issue.
“We’re really deep,” Aquilante said. “We’re still sorting out positions. We’ve got girls who can play multiple positions on the team. We’ve got spots on the field where we’ve got two or three girls who can play the spot. It’s going to be a challenge to manage this properly to make sure we’ve got the best team on the field, because we do have a lot of options.”
The depth extends to the pitcher’s mound, where Pilgrim has two pitchers it considers to be No. 1 starters.
Senior left-hander Carly Cabral and sophomore right-hander Witashnah Ellsworth split the duties last year and emerged as two of the top pitchers in the division.
Cabral was named second-team all-division, while Ellsworth received third-team honors. Whichever of the two isn’t pitching will usually play center field.
“The beauty of having the two of them is that one can play center field while the other pitches,” Aquilante said. “That’s a huge convenience to have. They’re two players that have to be in there every day.”
Perhaps the Pats’ top-returning position player, though, is junior shortstop Katelyn Reph. A starter at short since midway through her freshman year, Reph was first-team all-division last year and will lead the way for Pilgrim at the top of the batting order.
“She’s going to be at the top of the order, making things happen for us,” Aquilante said. “She’s had a great spring already for us at the plate.”
Back behind the plate is senior catcher Lauren Peladeau.
Peladeau was the everyday backstop last season, giving her important familiarity with both Cabral and Ellsworth.
“She gets to come back and she’s already familiar with both of them,” Aquilante said. “It’s always nice when you get a pitcher and a catcher back for a second year in a row.”
Handling the duties at third base will likely be sophomore Kelsey Johnston, who was an offensive force for the Pats last year. She was the team’s No. 3 hitter in her freshman year, and is poised for big things this season.
At first base, Pilgrim has two viable candidates in senior Stefani Quaine and sophomore Caitlin Blanchard.
Ideally, Aquilante would like to get both of them in the lineup regularly, which means that Blanchard could see some time in the outfield or third base.
“As far as I’m concerned, they’ve both got to get in the game,” Aquilante said.
The second base job looks to be between senior Danielle LeBlanc – a basketball standout who is playing softball for the first time since her freshman year – and freshman Ellen McDonnell. McDonnell can also play the outfield.
The outfield in general, however, is still somewhat up in the air, as there are a slew of different players who could start on any given day.
Besides Ellsworth, Cabral, McDonnell and Blanchard, Pilgrim also has senior Tiffany Legare, junior Stephanie Johnson and senior Kelly-Lynne Palmer-Brown.
Junior Arianna Bordeleau is new to the varsity team this year and could also see time out there, as well as at back-up catcher. Junior McKenzie Avedisian is also a newcomer, and will vie for innings in the outfield as well.
“It’s a great problem, because someone is going to be on the bench who’s good,” Aquilante said. “We’re going to be deep.”
And the depth extends to the batting order, too, which is where Aquilante thinks his team has a real chance to separate itself.
“We go one to nine,” Aquilante said. “We really do. Most teams have a leadoff hitter, a three hitter, a cleanup hitter. There’s no breaks. There’s always someone hitting for us who can hurt the other team.”
It’s just a matter of putting it all together.
The Pats caught glimpses of how good they could be last season, when they handed eventual state champion East Greenwich one of its two losses on the regular season.
With the team that they have now, there’s a real sense of urgency surrounding the program, and the hope that this could be the year that it translates into statewide success.
“We want to go to RIC (for the D-II semifinals),” Aquilante said. “We’ve talked about it. If you get there, you’ve had a great season. Obviously, in the regular season you position yourself to be there. That’s all you can do in the regular season.”
The season opens up next Tuesday with a road game against Cranston East at 3:30 p.m. at the Brayton Avenue Complex. Then, Pilgrim jumps right into the fire with a home game against East Greenwich on Thursday at 3:30 p.m.
The Pats hope it’s the start of a special season.
“We never feel that our opponent is superior to us,” Aquilante said. “We feel like if we play a clean game, we’re going to be there. They’re not intimidated by anybody, nor should they be.”