A team with three straight regional titles to its credit usually opens the season with more respect than the Riverside-Brookfield softball team is getting this year.
Maybe it's because the Bulldogs graduated four four-year varsity starters, all of whom have college-level ability. Or maybe after winning a school record 34 games in 2004, observers think RB is set for a rebuilding year.
Whatever reason critics find, this year's Bulldog team doesn't mind assuming the temporary role of underdog if it means taking other teams by surprise.
"The thing we have going for us is not a lot is expected of us," RB coach Dan Hull said. "We've got a lot of young players, but I'm pleased with where we're at right now. I think these kids are working hard, and by the middle of the season we'll be someone to take seriously."
Senior Meghan Hutchens, who's already signed on to play basketball at UIC, will return at second base. The team's best hitter, she'll bat third in the lineup and provide good defense for the Bulldogs at the keystone.
Stephanie Madsen, another returning senior, gives Hull a prototypical leadoff hitter at the top of his lineup card. A high-on-base-percentage player that Hull describes as, "lightning fast from home to first," Madsen can also steal some bases. She'll be the Bulldogs' starting center fielder.
Maggie McCloskey, who started last year as a sophomore, will be Hutchens' double-play partner at shortstop. Erin Pfieffer will play first base. Hull says both are terrific defensive players and good clutch hitters.
Alison Milani will find a place in the lineup, either at catcher or third base. Hull says she's good at both positions, so can fill in wherever he needs her experience. Rachel Lauterbach is the early leader for the right field position after seeing time there last year, and Melissa Ortega is a good hitter that can play multiple positions.
Utility infielder Kristy Brewer and outfielder Jamie Duffek give Hull a pair of freshmen speedsters, and senior Paula Connolly will give the Bulldogs even more speed off the bench.
"Last year we had more power," Hull said. "This year we positively have more speed, and not only do we have fast runners, but we have smart runners. We can definitely make things happen on the bases."
Gina Mayer and Danelle Neller are a senior catching tandem that could push Milani out to third base, senior Rachel James will see time at first base and the outfield and freshman April Hutchens, Meghan's sister, will serve an apprenticeship as a utility infielder this spring.
Sam Maas, who as a freshman last season hurled 10 wins against only two losses, will lead a young pitching staff. Sophomore Katrina Holeck and freshman Emma Forsberg will also see a lot of mound duty.
With a practically whole-new team, Hull expects to shuffle the lineup some as the season progresses and he gets to see some of his newer players in actual game situations. But he thinks the early returns are good.
"I'm really happy with what I'm seeing," Hull said. "These kids are starting to come together now as a team, and that will happen more as we begin to play some games."