Like several area high school baseball and softball programs, Fenwick’s softball team wisely traveled to Florida to kick off the season. After enduring a brutal winter like all of us, the Friars picked up three wins in four games in decidedly pleasant conditions at the ESPN Wide World of Sports Complex in Orlando, Fla. Off to a 5-3 start overall, the Friars’ forecast for the spring is seemingly as bright as the Florida sun, especially with momentum from last year’s advancement to the supersectionals of the Class 3A playoffs fresh in their minds.

“We have great team chemistry and tremendous spirit,” Fenwick coach Mike Marrese said. “We have two goals and they are the same goals every year — win conference and win state.”

Marrese’s high expectations don’t seem far-fetched at all, based on the Friars’ star-studded cast of returning players. With the exception of catcher Marisa Wakely and outfielder Sage Juveland, who are now playing softball at George Mason University and Grinnell College, respectively, the roster remains essentially intact.

“We return our top pitchers from 2013,” Marrese said. “I think we’re solid defensively at all positions and there are no easy outs in the lineup. Our team focus is always on the next pitch, the next play and the next at bat. We need to be aggressive in all phases of the game.”

The lineup is littered with difference-makers on the diamond, notably senior third baseman/pitcher Jessica Mrozek, senior centerfielder Jenna Cairo, senior shortstop Ashley Parenti and junior pitcher/third baseman Valerie Perrelli.

Mrozek, an all-conference player in the East Suburban Catholic Conference last year, led the Friars with a team-high .449 batting average and 32 RBIs. The James Madison recruit also possesses tremendous quickness and arm strength at third. She’s a solid pitcher with impeccable control.

Cairo, who has signed with Lewis, hit .402 with 28 runs scored as a leadoff hitter in 2013. Loyola University Chicago recruit Parenti tied Cairo with a team-high 28 runs scored and knocked in 25 runs last season.

“Jenna hits leadoff and gets everything going for us offensively,” Marrese said. “She catches everything in center field. Ashley bats cleanup for us and is a great contact hitter. She has tremendous range at shortstop.”

Arguably, no player fueled the Friars’ postseason run last season more than Perrelli. She caught fire in the playoffs with a 4-1 pitching record, allowing only two earned runs and five walks, along with 29 strikeouts, to produce a miniscule 0.412 ERA. Even in a losing cause, Perrelli was magnificent as she worked all 11 innings of the Friars’ 2-1 loss to Glenbard South in the Class 3A supersectionals.

Maggie Horn, Michaela Monaco and Genesis Fuentes are other key contributors for Fenwick. Freshmen Natalie Cairo and Giselle Diaz are poised to make an immediate impact on the varsity. Cairo can play virtually any position in the field. According to Marrese, she’s an excellent contact hitter with power, while Diaz is a second baseman blessed with speed and range.

“Both Natalie and Giselle are mature freshmen,” Marrese said. “They handle pressure like seasoned veterans.”

While playing in the East Suburban Catholic Conference is challenging, Marrese believes the Friars are ready for any opponent. Last season, Fenwick finished 21-16 overall but just 8-10, finishing sixth in the ESCC. Along with Fenwick, Bishop McNamara, Providence, Benet, Marist, Carmel and Marian Catholic are all viable candidates to win conference this year.

“We play in one of the toughest conferences in the state,” Marrese said. “There are no easy conference games. I look for us to contend for the conference championship, but there is no clear-cut favorite.”

After their auspicious trip to Florida, Fenwick (5-3) has split its last four games. Bishop McNamara roughed up the Friars 15-6 and 10-0 in five innings on Saturday. In the Game 1 (15-6) loss, Cairo and Parenti went 3-for-4 and Diaz 2-for-3 at the plate. In the second game, Fuentes was 2-for-2 as Fenwick went scoreless.

Before being swept by the Fightin’ Irish in ESCC play, Fenwick beat Resurrection 7-0 and Trinity 4-3. Perrelli picked up a complete-game win in both games. Horn (3-for-4, two RBIs), Parenti (2-for-3, RBI) and Monaco (2-for-4, two RBIs) paced the Friars against Resurrection, while Horn went 2-for-4 with an RBI in support of Perrelli against rival Trinity.