Trojans set sights on .500 season behind Gayheart, Roe, TVO

ARMSTRONG — When the ball was hit, Gary Duden turned to his three assistant coaches, gave a small smile and took a couple steps to head out of the dugout.

Armstrong-Potomac’s softball coach watched last season as his seventh-seeded Trojans surrendered a 13-8 lead to third-seeded Woodland in the seventh inning of a regional semifinal game.

Just three outs away from an upset and advancing to a title game, A-P gave up two runs before recording two outs, and then Woodland sent a line drive shot over the fence for a three-run homer to tie it at 13.

In the top of the eighth, Kayla Roe bagged a solo home run, but Woodland hit three doubles, including one a missed fly ball by the Trojans’ center fielder, to pull off a stunning 15-14 victory. On the center fielder’s error, as the ball was flying toward her glove, Duden thought it was over.

“It was just like, ‘Oh. Wow,’ Duden said of the moment. “And I felt terrible for our centerfielder. We hadn’t played in the lights, and we started the game with no lights. I know it had a factor to do with (the error), and she felt terrible. But that wasn’t why we lost the game. That was just the last play that everybody remembers.

“I keep thinking in my head if I had not called that 0-2 changeup or if I had (pitcher Madi Gayheart) place that changeup a little bit different or if we had caught the fly ball in bottom of the eighth (maybe we would’ve won). But ‘couda, shoulda, woulda.’ We gave them a battle, and that’s all I ask my kids to do every game, to give 110 percent and give us a chance to win, and we had it.”

That painful final loss put a damper on the season’s end, and that feeling has turned into something Duden has urged his players to keep in the back of their heads.

“That was my first thing I talked about when we had our team meeting. We don’t want to be a doormat, and I feel like we are knocking on the door, and our knocks are getting harder. And I feel like that showed the girls we can compete if we really play our style of softball, which is we’re not going to pitch perfect, but if we can be aggressive in hitting and play really good defense, we’ve got a chance,” Duden said.

“I feel like that’s every coach’s model, of course, but seeing that the last two years (made it a reality) — the first year going to the regional championship and LeRoy taking care of us but seeing that we can get there, and we like it, and the second year being a seven seed playing a three seed, I know that three seed thought they would run right over us.

“We played really well; we just came out on the short end. I told my girls remember that. Don’t relive it. Remember it. That we had the opportunity in our hands to go onto the next game, and we had it in our hands but fell short. And I think they have. They’ve really gathered around this year, every one of my players varsity or JV was at that game dressed.”

Moving on

That game is in the past, and the Trojans are loading up with a new team following the graduation of starters Hayley and Holley Hambleton, Megan Koester and Trinity Fitzsimmons.

Duden said the four were “very vital to our team,” most notably Holley Hambleton, one of the area’s top shortstops who is continuing her career at Danville Area Community College. But despite the loss of that foursome, Duden is optimistic there won’t be a steep drop-off.

“I feel like we do have more options this year. All four are going to be very hard to replace, but I feel like we do have some options that we did not have last year. We’ve got a couple girls that didn’t play who are playing this season,” Duden said.

Those players include Milford transfer Jenna Muench, who started for the Bearcats last season and can play catcher, middle infield and outfield. She is sidelined with an injury and will miss the first part of the season. Also, Duden praised juniors Destiny Fitzsimmons and Grace Reynolds as two who could shine.

“(Fitzsimmons) hadn’t played for a while. That hurts, but she did play in our summer league this year. She’s super athletic, and she’s going to be able to play a very vital role of backup catcher and middle infield (second, third, short). She’s very quick, and I just can’t say enough about her attitude and hustle. It’s unreal,” Duden said. “Grace Reynolds has really come a long way pitching. She’s only a junior, and she has put in a ton of work.

"Her freshman year we got about 10 games in, and I said, ‘I’m going to start having you pitch,’ and she just said, ‘OK.’ She has come from scratch to being a pretty reliable left-handed pitcher. She’s going to get a lot of opportunities, especially in the JV innings. She’s going to, hopefully, have an opportunity at varsity pitching. And she’s a good outfielder. She’s got a terrific arm, and we’re really excited about how she’s going to develop.”

Natalie Schluter is another to keep an eye one. She is a sophomore centerfielder and leadoff hitter who saw plenty of varsity action last season.

On Schluter, Duden said: “I really have a lot of goals in mind for her. As a leadoff hitter, your job is to get on base some way, somehow. She has a lot of weapons she can use to do that, and she is a very good defender.

"I want to (increase) her arm strength and get her more reps. As a sophomore, she’s still growing and still learning. She’s bought in, and she knows what we as coaches expect of her. We’re going to rely a lot on her.”

Core players

If Muench, Reynolds, Fitzsimmons and Schluter can consistently produce, the Trojans have a shot at nearing the .500 mark, which is a high goal Duden has set for the girls that is attainable.

But much of A-P’s success will stem from the performances of its top three impact players: Gayheart, Kayla Roe and Tessa Van Ostrand.

“I put a lot of weight on those three and our other two seniors as well in leadership roles,” Duden said.

“When Madi came in as a freshman, she had an opportunity to play. When I came in my first year when she was a sophomore, I could see it. She’s just a bulldog out there. She’s very, very competitive. She sometimes can let that get to her with her emotions or what she says. She hates to lose. We relate really well together,” Duden said.

 “Kayla Roe is a fantastic catcher. I think she’s the best catcher in our conference. I would put her up against anybody. She’s one that’s going to give 110 percent all the time, and she’s going to be a great backstop. We do have some other options at catcher to where she might be able to slide over at shortstop and fill that void if we have somebody struggling at shortstop or third base, so that’s a good situation to have.

“Tessa Van Ostrand is going to play infield, outfield, pitch. … She did pretty well last year for being her first year (pitching). She had a down year with the bat last year, so I talked to her, and we’ve changed a few things with her stance. She’s very athletic and freaky fast. It seems like she can get to first base with super, super quickness. We’re going to rely on those three heavily.”

Squad goals

Duden hopes to reach that .500 mark and win more games than last year (eight), in addition to winning more Vermilion Valley Conference games (one of the ways to do that, he said, is cutting down those big 7-8-run innings to 2-3-run innings). Also, getting to a regional championship is another hope.

“Those never get old. We want to be able to be there every year and extend our season as long as we can. Of course, every coach’s goal is to have practice when the kids are out of school because it means our season extended,” Duden said.

The Trojans face Blue Ridge at 4:30 p.m. Wednesday at home.

Contact Zack Carpenter at and on Twitter @ZackCarpenter11.

Categories (3):Prep Sports, Softball, Sports


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