Bengals look to vets as key to success in 2012

by Rob LaPlante
Contributing writer

It’s been a while since Blaine head coach Tom Wherry could say he is optimistic about an upcoming softball season.

Senior Abbey Nelson is three-time, all-conference catcher who looks to lead the Bengals this season. Photo by Rich Moll, contributing photographer

Senior Abbey Nelson is three-time, all-conference catcher who looks to lead the Bengals this season. Photo by Rich Moll, contributing photographer

You have to go back to the 2007 campaign to find a Bengals (9-9 overall) team that didn’t finish below .500. Since then, the team posted overall records of 6-13 a year ago, followed by records of 6-17, 5-17 and 3-19 the prior three seasons.

So what is that has Wherry feeling optimistic about 2012?

“We have a lot of experienced seniors on this year’s roster,” Wherry said. “A lot of our seniors have played three to four years of varsity and put in time in our summer program. This is a fun group that has been around for a while.”

Wherry credits the Soderville softball summer program as a big reason for the drastic improvements. The program offers three different levels of fast pitch softball between the ages of nine and 18.

Blaine senior pitcher Jessica Eppenberger

Blaine senior pitcher Jessica Eppenberger

Another reason for optimism came in the Section 7AAA playoffs a year ago. A 10-0 first-round win over Grand Rapids not only ended Blaine’s seven-game losing streak, but it was their first playoff win since defeating Andover in 2010.

“That was our first playoff win in a couple years,” Wherry said. “Record-wise, we weren’t very successful, but that win was a step in the right direction and I thought we played well in the 7-1 playoff loss to Forest Lake.”

Juniors Lauren Anderson and Jessica Eppenberger will both split duties as starting pitchers. Anderson saw the bulk of games last year finishing with a record of 5-10 with a 4.32 earned run average. Eppenberger finished 2-4 with a 6.33 ERA.

Anderson will likely get the majority of starts, as most high school teams rely heavily on one pitcher. Despite having less than eye-popping statistics as sophomores, Wherry said he has confidence in both girls when it comes to taking to the mound.

“Lauren keeps the ball down in the strike zone and is a tremendous fielder as well as a good hitter,” Wherry said. “Jessica has improved on her speeds and picked up her control. It’s a blessing to have two good pitchers on your team.”

With experience already returning on the pitching side of things, offense has early question marks with positions yet to be won. One thing not lacking will be experience behind the plate or at first base.

The Bengals return all-conference seniors Abbey Nelson at catcher and Abby Veloske at first base. Nelson has been named to the Northwest Suburban Conference team three years in a row and last fall verbally committed to play softball for the University of Minnesota-Duluth. Veloske led the Bengals in hitting last year with a .365 batting average, two home runs and 10 runs batted in.

Both players will captain this year’s team along with senior outfielder Hannah Zurn, who is coming back after suffering off-season knee surgery. Zurn hit .304 with a homer and 10 RBI’s prior to her injury. She and senior third baseman Kelsey Ripek are the other position players that look to solidify the lineup.

“We’re still looking for players to fill in at other positions, but the entire top of the order can hit,” Wherry said.

With only four seniors gone from last year’s roster, the Bengals are hopeful their experience will lead them to the first winning season since 2007 when they finished 9-6 in the conference.

“I’m very optimistic about the coming season,” Wherry said. “We have experience, leadership and this is the seniors’ last chance.”

The Bengals began the regular season Wednesday night with a trip to Princeton. The conference begins with a pair of home dates scheduled for April 11 against Osseo and April 12 against Andover. Both games start at 4:15 p.m.

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