With the exception of Bri Keys and Amanda Lopez (both graduated in 2016), the Fenwick High School softball team returns the bulk of its lineup this spring.

The returning mix of talent and experience raises hopes for the Friars to improve on their 17-16 showing (with a regional final appearance) last season.

Four-year varsity starter Giselle Diaz leads the Friars. She’s a slick-fielding shortstop who hit .356 with three home runs and a team-best nine doubles

Natalie Cairo, another four-year varsity player, has plenty of motivation to play well. The second baseman endured a season-ending knee injury during last year’s first game. Fully recovered, she has good power at the plate and is solid defensively.

Sophomore third baseman/outfielder Rachel Martinez had a breakout season in 2016. As a freshman, she led the Friars in hits (46), RBIs (34), HRs (8), runs scored and batting average (.393). Martinez has verbally committed to Eastern Michigan University.

Junior Kayley Sherwood will be the primary catcher. She’s a three-year starter who finished last season with a .320 batting average, 32 hits and 27 RBIs. Defensively, she was a force behind the plate with a .980 fielding percentage and strong arm.

In terms of pitching, Fenwick is well-armed with a staff of three quality starters. The leader of the staff is senior Grace Tucek, who led the Friars with 11 wins, 120 innings pitched and 122 strikeouts. She also played outfield and hit .316, with 31 RBIs, 30 hits and a team-best on-base percentage of .435.

Along with Martinez, sophomore pitchers Alyssa Stramaglia and Cassandra Lee adjusted well as freshman last season to high school softball.

“Our freshmen, Rachel, Alyssa and Cassandra all made a huge impact on our team last season,” coach Mike Marrese said. “Alyssa is a hard thrower with good control.

“Cassandra came up to the varsity about midway through the 2016 season and was a big contributor on the mound. She was solid defensively in both the outfield and infield, has great speed on the bases, hits for power and has a great arm.”

While playing in the Girls Catholic Athletic Conference (GCAC) is never easy, the Friars have reasons for optimism.

“There is no easy conference opponent in the GCAC,” Marrese said. “The favorites will be Montini, Bishop MacNamara and Providence.”

In addition to a difficult conference schedule, the Friars will face several tough nonconference opponents, including Class 4A defending state champion OPRF, Glenbard South, Carmel, Benet, Riverside-Brookfield, and Nazareth.

“We have three quality pitchers and we are strong defensively,” Marrese said. “Offensively, the focus is on quality at-bats more so than batting average.

Regardless of the level of competition, Marrese’s goals never waver. Entering his 15th season as a high school coach and 28th overall, Marrese aspires to coach a state championship team.

The closest he came with Fenwick was an Elite 8 finish in 2013.

“I have the goals every season which is to win conference and win state,” he said. “We will come ready to play every game, we will be solid defensively, and we’ll have no easy outs in our batting lineup.”

Fenwick softball scouting report

Fenwick Friars

Head coach: Mike Marrese, 8th year at Fenwick (4th as head coach), 28th year coaching overall

Record last year: 17-16, 5-6 in Girls Catholic Athletic Conference; lost to Kaneland 10-4 in Class 3A regional final

Top Players: Giselle Diaz, senior, shortstop; Grace Tucek, senior, pitcher/outfielder; Natalie Cairo, senior, second baseman; Kayley Sherwood, junior, catcher; Rachel Martinez, sophomore, third baseman; Alyssa Stramaglia, sophomore, pitcher/outfielder; Cassandra Lee, sophomore, pitcher

Outlook: Based on their brutal schedule, Fenwick will absorb some losses during the regular season. With its talent level, however, the Friars could make a run in the playoffs similar to their 2013 campaign when they advanced to a supersectional.