NEW MANCHESTER - Optimism is high at Oak Glen where the Golden Bears softball program enters a season with six letterwinners, including three of the three-year variety.
But while the core group of six should be enough to keep Oak Glen molded together, they also have three pretty big holes left to fill from graduated seniors Tayler Maxwell, Maddison McPherson and Tia Smith. That trio leaves holes at shortstop, second base and in the outfield, and also the Bears' leadoff, No. 2 and No. 4 hitters.
Leading the way will be seniors Jordan Cunningham, Marissa Murray and Casey Patterson, all seeking their fourth letters, along with classmate Shayni Vega and juniors Mykelti McGaffic and Ashley Pryor.
Along with the core returning group, there are three freshmen who have cracked the starting lineup and will be looked upon to provide both offense and defense right away.
Cunningham, who hit .337 a season ago, returns in the circle and will share time there with freshman Logan Andrews. When one is pitching, the other will be starting at shortstop. The same situation will occur behind the plate where the team's leading hitter (.396), Pryor, will be either behind the plate or at third base with freshman newcomer Mikayla Crane in the other spot.
The outfield will consist of Vega, Patterson and freshman Marissa Young while McGaffic is back at second base and Murray will be at first, and can also be called upon to pitch if needed.
Others who could see varsity playing time are junior Emilee Phillips, sophomores Erin Fields and Alyson Snow and freshman Maryssa Durante.
''Cunningham has shown great dedication by working year-round on her pitching, and Logan Andrews also pitches year-round on travel teams,'' McHaffie said. ''With that I think our pitching will be improved and I think we will be very strong in the outfield as well.
''The team has been making the most of its limited practice time, but we have been able to utilize the new turf surface on the football field for outdoor practices. With assistant coaches Sherrie Garner and Morgan Martin and plenty of volunteer help, we have been able to focus on our outfields more, which we haven't done in a long time.
''Morgan Martin played on the college level and has coached previously, so she brings a wealth of knowledge both of the game and pitching. The coaches and players are all very optimistic about the season and we are leaning heavily on our strong freshmen newcomers to help advance our program.
''No question we expect a learning curve due to the youth as a whole, but we are looking to improve as the season progresses and the younger players adjust to the high school level of play.''