Smoky Hill surprised the softball world last season on its way to the Class 5A state tournament.
The Buffaloes scrapped and shocked their way into 5A’s final 16 teams with a strong finish in the Centennial League and an upset victory over a Cherokee Trail team that had handled them twice to earn their first trip to state in a decade.
With a new coach in B.J. Kingsbaker and minus their four-year varsity starting pitcher in Maddie Siemer, the question is if Smoky Hill can do it again.
“I think we were the total underdog last year and nobody even expected us to get to the playoffs,” senior Mattie Kennedy said. “I think it was even shocking for us, too, but I think it made us work even harder for this. I think we can have even more success this year.”
The change to Kingsbaker isn’t big given he served as an assistant last season and the Buffaloes feel a group of pitchers that includes junior Kayla Banks and senior Malena Murillo gives them a chance to win.
Junior catcher Emilie Roberts turned into an offensive force last season and she and Banks key an offense that puts the ball in play and is aggressive on the bases.
Smoky Hill upset coach Caley Mitchell’s Cherokee Trail team in regional play to make state.
The talented Cougars return nearly their entire lineup — including senior pitchers Emily Bell and Audrey Pickett — and should be the favorite in the league.
Cherokee Trail’s veterans are not short on motivation as they still haven’t experienced a trip to state despite a high level of talent.
“I think we’ll always have that game in the back of our minds, feeding the fire,” senior Skylar Higens said of the season-ending loss to Smoky Hill. “I really think that is going to help our core of seniors push us further. I think we can go all the way.”
Eaglecrest, Aurora’s other 5A state tournament qualifier, graduated a group of nine seniors with significant experience and got bad news when it learned slugger Kailey Wilson was lost for the year with a torn knee ligament suffered over the summer, but coach Yvette Hendrian remains optimistic.
Senior Kathleen Ingram and junior Braelyne Crenshaw will lead a trio of pitchers for the Raptors, while returning All-Centennial League second teamer Brandee Morris and much-improved Rachel Sabourin — both sophomores — should keep the lineup potent.
Graduation took significant talent from Grandview’s lineup as well, while All-State outfielder Alex Velazquez left to play her senior year in Minnesota.
Coach Dave Thies’ Wolves — just two seasons removed from winning the 5A state championship — have been building the lower levels for a few seasons and that should pay off with some new faces making an impact, while senior Terran Caldwell and junior Sophie Herrera provide leadership and talent that earned them All-Centennial League honors last year.
Though Thies has had some big senior personalities on his last two teams, he won’t have many this season as the majority on the field will be juniors and sophomores.
Rangeview graduated nearly all of its varsity roster from a team that finished 9-8 last season and tied for third in the EMAC. The Raiders do return senior Ally Pacheco, an All-EMAC second team selection who hit a team-best .632 and led the team with 14 stolen bases.
Rangeview’s biggest hole comes on the mound, where pitchers who accounted for all but one varsity inning in 2015 graduated.
Graduation changes the look to many Aurora programs in 2016, but so has changes in the coaching ranks, with seven new coaches among 11 programs.
Aurora Central (George Campos), Gateway (Devin Zaragoza), Hinkley (Chris Schmitt), Overland (Omar Garcia), Regis Jesuit (Merideth Feik) and Vista PEAK (Eddie Sanchez) all are under new leadership.
Feik is Regis Jesuit’s original coach and returns in place of Charlie Williams, who took over for her in 2009. Junior Erin Pendleton, the Raiders’ only all-league selection last season, returns on the mound and the West Texas A&M committment led the team in pitching and hitting last season.
Senior infielders Taylor Bush and Alex Suellentrop bring plenty of experience, leadership and hunger to get the team to the postseason as it could be their final seasons playing competitive softball.
The further development of sophomores Jackie Cal and Isabel Macias, who both enter their varsity seasons, will be keys to the future for Regis Jesuit.
“I would say maturity and experience is big for us this year,” Feik said. “The majority of the team has now played at the varsity level and I believe that makes a big difference.”
Sanchez, meanwhile, takes over a growing Vista PEAK program that posted 14 victories a year ago and qualified for the 4A regionals for the first time.
The Bison — who move from the Colorado 7 to join the rest of the Aurora Public Schools programs in the EMAC — return two very experienced seniors in Jasmin Sanchez and Laura Blackwood, who both made the All-Colorado 7 second team in 2015.
Blackwood takes a lot of pride in the fact the Bison have upped their win total in each of her three varsity seasons — from nine to 12 to 14 — and qualifying for regionals also gave her a confidence boost, despite losses to Valor Christian and Pueblo East.
“It was incredible, I wouldn’t trade that feeling that we got to experience as a team, especially for one that is so young,” Blackwood said. “I think it taught me that we could achieve anything we want. A lot of people thought we were going to get crushed, but we didn’t.”
Garcia was a late addition as head coach at Overland and inherits a program that is in a tough spot in the rugged Centennial League and is coming off a 3-16 campaign. The Trailblazers graduated just one player from last season’s team.
Campos, who served as an assistant under former Rangeview, takes over at Aurora Central for his first head coaching job. The California native knows eight players graduated from a team that won five games a year ago under former coach Cole Hardy, the most for the program in a long time.
The Trojans expect to return an All-EMAC performer in shortstop Rosaria Garcia.
Zaragoza takes over a Gateway program that finished 0-17 last season and graduated both of its All-EMAC performers (Sarah Alvarado and Iva Griffiths), but has found great support at the school and is emphasizing fun in addition to competition.
Assistant coach Najah McFarland is also new to the Olys.
Hinkley outlasted Gateway 28-27 for its only win of last season — down from four in the 2014 season — and Schmitt hopes to improve on that number in 2016.
Key dates and information about the 2016 Aurora softball season, here.
Courtney Oakes is Aurora Sentinel Sports Editor. Reach him at 303-750-7555 or [email protected] Twitter: @aurorasports. FB: Aurora Prep Sentinel
2016 AURORA SOFTBALL PLAYERS TO WATCH
Returning all-conference selections: Emily Adler, OF, Vista PEAK, jr.*; Kayla Banks, Util, Smoky Hill, jr.*; Emily Bell, P, Cherokee Trail, sr.*; Laura Blackwood, P, Vista PEAK, sr.*; Taylor Bush, INF, Regis Jesuit, sr.; Jacqueline Cal, P/INF, Regis Jesuit, soph.; Terran Caldwell, OF, Grandview, sr.*; Braelyne Crenshaw, P/INF, Eaglecrest, jr.; Bailee England, INF, Smoky Hill, sr.; Rosario Garcia, INF, Aurora Central, sr.*; Sophie Herrera, INF, Grandview, jr.*; Skylar Higens, INF, Cherokee Trail, sr.*; Kathleen Ingram, P, Eaglecrest, sr.; Mattie Kennedy, OF, Smoky Hill, sr.; Hunter Kincaid, OF, Vista PEAK, sr.*; Chloe Knapp, OF, Cherokee Trail, sr.*; Isabel Macias, INF, Regis Jesuit, soph.; Megan Medhus, INF, Cherokee Trail, jr.*; Taryn Moan, Util, Grandview, soph.; Brandee Morris, INF, Eaglecrest, soph.*; Malena Murillo, P/INF, Smoky Hill, sr.; Sonoma Olson, INF, Cherokee Trail, sr.; Ally Pacheco, Rangeview, sr.*; Erin Pendleton, P, Regis Jesuit, jr.*; Audrey Pickett, P, Cherokee Trail, sr.*; Peyton Rider, INF, Vista PEAK, soph.*; Emilie Roberts, C, Smoky Hill, jr.*; Rachel Sabourin, INF, Eaglecrest, soph.; Jasmin Sanchez, INF, Vista PEAK, sr.*; Alex Sullentrop, INF, Regis Jesuit, sr.; Laurel Wilson, OF, Smoky Hill, sr.; Alyssa Yoshida, INF, Cherokee Trail, sr.*; Kailey Wilson, INF, Eaglecrest, jr.* (injured, out for season)
* — Returning 2015 all-conference selection