After helping Cherokee Trail and Grandview reach the pinnacle of Class 5A softball, Eaglecrest feels like it’s ready to take its turn at the top.
In recent years, the Raptors have provided outstanding competition for the neighboring Cougars and Wolves, who each captured the first state championship in program history in the past three seasons.
Eaglecrest has a state title to its credit from 2005, but the time seems to be now for coach Yvette Hendrian’s team. No small part of that is the benefit of playing top level competition just up the road.
“As much as we are all rivals at these three schools, what we all really understand is that we’re still a family around here,” Hendrian said. “Our girls play competitive ball in the summer with girls from Grandview and CT, so they know each other well. It absolutely drives us all to be better.”
Grandview (the 2014 5A state champion) missed out on the state tournament last season, but Eaglecrest and Cherokee Trail both made it and faced each other in the semifinals. The Cougars got the better of that matchup as an 11-8 win put them in the state final where they beat Broomfield.
While graduation robbed Cherokee Trail of several of its key pieces, Eaglecrest is almost fully intact and further strengthened by the return from injury of slugger Kailey Wilson.
The Raptors graduated one of their three pitchers from last season, but seniors Braelyne Crenshaw and Mackenzie Hochstetler return to give them plenty of big game experience on the mound.
And an offense that averaged nearly 8.5 runs per game a year ago without Wilson in the lineup gets to add her powerful bat. The Creighton commitment teams with shortstop Rachel Sabourin — a double-digit home run hitter last year — at the heart of an order that Hendrian believes is fearsome from top to bottom.
Best of all, the Raptors finally seem to have the understanding of how to win — some of it provided by closely watching Cherokee Trail and Grandview — to go with their prodigious talent.
“Our focus is different; getting over that second round hump last year was big,” Hendrian said. “When these seniors were freshmen, we had the tools to do it and we didn’t. They understand where the focus has to go and they are hungry right now.”
Cherokee Trail coach Caley Mitchell uses the word “magical” when looking back on last season’s championship victory, in some ways an improbable run that ended in triumph with a 1-0 eight-inning win over Broomfield.
The third-year Cougars coach is in new territory as head of a returning champion and is searching to find the balance of drawing on last season’s experience while helping this season’s team hold up to the increased expectations that come with it.
“How do you come back after winning it all and still have the intensity to do your best again?” Mitchell said. “These girls are hungry to perform and show that last season wasn’t a fluke, but at the same time we have to get past the mindset that we won last year, so the pressure is off. We’re a little inexperienced in places, but we have the talent to fill our holes.”
The Cougars lost five key seniors from their championship mix — including workhorse pitchers Emily Bell and Aubrey Pickett — and first team all-league outfielder Alyssa Pinto moved away just a year after she moved in.
Cherokee Trail does get back significant seniors Meghan Medhus and Lexi Gillen, plus juniors Delanie Cox and KT Roenfeldt, but the biggest question for Mitchell is how will the Cougars’ young pitchers — primarily sophomores such as right-hander Ashley Quinn — fare against varsity opponents.
Mitchell has also gained an appreciation for the dynamic with Cherokee Trail’s rivals, even in her short time being a part of it.
“Dave (Thies) and Yvette run really good programs and you know what you are going to get when you play them,” Mitchell said. “Even if one team seems a lot better, you never know how a game will go. We all know each other really well.”
Eaglecrest and Cherokee Trail play each other Oct. 4 in the regular season finale.
Thies’ Grandview program is just a couple of seasons removed from its state title and appears ready to rejoin its regular place in the 5A state tournament.
The Wolves return five of their six all-league performers from a year ago in seniors Sophie Herrera, Morgan Quimby and Ashley Vallejos, junior Taryn Moan and sophomore Jacqueline Ley, while Thies believes speedy junior transfer Delaney Daughenbaugh should help minimize the loss of graduated standout Terran Caldwell.
Vallejos got a full season on the mound as a junior, pitched a lot over the summer and has demonstrated her improvement to Thies, who believes she has the potential to become as good as the pitcher who led the Wolves to the state championship in Courtney Browne.
Herrera is a multiple-time All-Centennial League first team performer who will help lead the way on a team that includes a lot of players who got significantly better over the summer.
“Our goal is going to be to focus in and see if we can be playing great softball by the time regionals come around,” Thies said. “It we can play at the very top level that we can play at that time, we have a chance to compete for that state championship.”
Part of building towards playing well at that prime time of year is playing a grueling schedule that includes key matchups against Cherokee Trail and Eaglecrest.
“We’ve all pushed each other and Caley and Yvette are great coaches,” Thies said. “We have great respect for each other.”
While the three Aurora powers all expect to contend for the Centennial League championship, there are several others teams that will be major factors in the equation.
Smoky Hill is definitely one of those teams, as coach BJ Kingsbaker has himself a dynamic duo in seniors Emilie Roberts and Kayla Banks, plus a nice compliment of athletes who should make facing the Buffs — an 11-11 team last season — a difficult proposition.
Roberts, a top-notch catcher who will also pitch some this season, is bound for the University of Northern Colorado and has one of the most powerful bats in Aurora as she has racked up double-digit homers in her prep career.
Banks logged 93 innings on the mound last season and is the type of pitcher who could take a team far when she’s throwing well. Banks also lifts Smoky Hill with her bat as she posted an eye-popping .610 batting average last year.
Longtime club coach Omar Garcia is trying to help long-suffering Overland gain some traction in the tough league and will lean on junior pitcher Gracie Martinez and sophomore shortstop Brandie Martinez to help that happen.
As has long been the case, Regis Jesuit has a problem with low numbers, but coach Merideth Feik may soon get a boost of athletes who don’t make the cut in other varsity sports at the school.
A dedicated senior class surrounding the quality battery of junior pitcher Jacqueline Cal and junior catcher Izzy Macias gives Feik reason to believe a jump from last season’s 5-14 mark is possible.
Cal threw 93 innings as a sophomore as she took over the primary pitching role from Erin Pendleton — a first team All-Continental League selection who did not come out for the team this year — and she followed that up with a lot of innings on the mound over the summer.
Macias is a talented leader and outstanding hitter who comes back improved after playing at a second team all-league level a year ago.
In the EMAC, Vista PEAK finished 10-9 last season and enters its second season under coach Eddie Sanchez, who returns several all-league performers from a team that finished in the middle of the pack in its debut season in the league.
The Bison already had a large and impactful junior class, but it got even stronger with the arrival of twins Katie and Kayla Russell. The transfers from Arvada West have played at 5A level and offer versatility to Vista PEAK’s lineup.
George Campos continues to build at Aurora Central with senior pitcher Birungi Balijahe and junior infielder Bailey Garrison — a second team All-EMAC pick last year — leading the way, while coach Paul Reil’s Rangeview aims to improve on a five-win 2016 campaign despite a lot of turnover on the roster.
Gateway and Hinkley — which combined for a single win last season — merged to form a co-op team based out of Hinkley. Coach Chris Schmitt has added young talent to some experience in players such as senior Stephanie Davis and junior Andrea Fuentes.
Courtney Oakes is Aurora Sentinel Sports Editor. Reach him at 303-750-7555 or email@example.com. Twitter: @aurorasports. FB: Aurora Prep Sentinel
2017 AURORA SOFTBALL PLAYERS TO WATCH
Returning all-conference selections: Kayla Banks, INF/P, Smoky Hill, sr. (All-Centennial League first team); Emily Botkin, OF, Smoky Hill, sr. (All-Centennial League second team); Jackie Cal, P/INF, Regis Jesuit, jr. (All-Continental League first team); Dani Chaney, C, Vista PEAK, jr. (All-EMAC second team); Braelyne Crenshaw, P/INF, Eaglecrest, sr. (All-Centennial League first team); Ayla Davis, P, Visat PEAK, sr. (All-EMAC second team); Bailey Garrison, INF, Aurora Central, jr. (All-EMAC second team); Lexi Gillen, INF, Cherokee Trail, sr. (All-Centennial League second team); Sophie Herrera, INF, Grandview, sr. (All-Centennial League first team); Jacqueline Ley, Util., Grandview, soph. (All-Centennial League second team); Izzy Macias, C, Regis Jesuit, jr. (All-Continental League second team); Megan Medhus, C, Cherokee Trail, sr. (All-Centennial League second team); Taryn Moan, INF, Grandview, jr. (All-Centennial League second team); Brandee Morris, C, Eaglecrest, sr. (All-Centennial League first team); Morgan Quimby, INF, Grandview, sr. (All-Centennial League second team); Emilie Roberts, C/P, Smoky Hill, sr. (All-Centennial League first team); Rachel Sabourin, INF, Eaglecrest, jr. (All-Centennial League first team); Ashley Vallejos, P, Grandview, sr. (All-Centennial League second team); Rylee Waggoner, OF, Eaglecrest, jr. (All-Centennial League first team)
Other Aurora players to watch: Emily Adler, INF, Vista PEAK, sr.; Haley Albers, UTIL, Cherokee Trail, sr.; Shayelyn Allen, INF, Eaglecrest, jr.; Birungi Balijahe, P, Aurora Central, sr.; Jordan Clanton, UTIL, Rangeview, jr.; Haley Collins, OF, Cherokee Trail, sr.; Delanie Cox, INF, Cherokee Trail, jr.; Delaney Daughenbaugh, OF, Grandview, jr.; Stephanie Davis, INF/OF, Hinkley, jr.; Andrea Fuentes, P, Hinkley, jr.; Rebekah Hale, Regis Jesuit, sr.; Mackenzie Hochstetler, P, Eaglecrest, sr.; Hannah Jensen, INF, Eaglecrest, sr.; Cameron Lyons, INF, Smoky Hill, soph.; Mireya Marquez, P/INF, Rangeview, sr.; Gracie Martinez, P, Overland, jr.; Ashley Quinn, P, Cherokee Trail, fr.; Kaitlynn “KT” Roenfeldt, OF, Cherokee Trail, jr.; Katie Russell, UTIL, Vista PEAK, jr.; Kayla Russell, UTIL, Vista PEAK, jr.; Brandie Smith, INF, Overland, soph.; Kailey Wilson, INF, Eaglecrest, sr.; Paige Wood, OF, Smoky Hill, sr.; Yasmine Ybarra, INF/C, Smoky Hill, soph.
Find key dates and information on the 2017 prep softball season here.