POLAND - You could feel sorry for the Poland Bulldogs softball team because their ace of last season is now pitching at the University of Tennessee, but that wouldn't be wise.
There's enough talent on hand for first-year coach Matt Campbell to make the transition from the Erin Gabriel era a little easier to handle. Gabriel, who's already made an impression for the Volunteers, spoiled former coach Reid Lamport with precision and power that was rare throughout the state.
"She was pretty much a once-in-a-generation player," said Campbell, who assisted Lamport last season. "She left a legacy here and made her mark on the program. A lot of young girls aspire to be the next Erin Gabriel. She set the bar high."
Campbell is confident pitching won't be a weakness because of senior Kasey Serich, who may have been one of the best pitchers in the area that no one knew about last season.
"At most schools she would have been the ace, but because of Erin Gabriel she didn't get an opportunity," Campbell said.
Beyond Serich, Campbell is expecting pitching help from junior Taylor Miokovic and sophomore Aleah Hughes.
"You can't replace her (Gabriel)," Campbell said. "Everybody has to do her part as best she can and see what happens. We have some good pitchers that are back."
The Bulldogs came up short of winning a second straight Division II state championship last season, losing to eventual state winner LaGrange Keystone in the semifinals. Having eight lettermen back will make it easier to at least add another district title to the trophy case.
"We're excited about the season," Campbell said. "There are a lot of girls coming up with a lot of experience and success in travel leagues. We've got a lot of talent, but it's a new year and a new challenge."
Captains Marissa Trevis, Meredith Testa and Miokovic should make major impacts. Miokovic returns to her spot as the cleanup hitter.
"We're high on pretty much the entire team," Campbell said. "We have a lot of position players that can play multiple positions. Early on it will be feeling out as to who is best at each position. There's a lot of competition. It will sort itself out."
Campbell began his coaching career at the freshmen and junior varsity baseball levels at Cardinal Mooney. He coached at Crestview before being named the head baseball coach at Columbiana. He coached freshmen baseball at Poland before moving to softball last year.
The challenge this season will be to continue the tradition of winning that Lamport established before retiring. Without Gabriel, he knows that opponents might assume the Bulldogs have been wounded.
"We hope teams underestimate us for sure," Campbell said. "It's always nice to play the underdog role and take care of what we can take care of. If we play solid defense and get good pitching and have timely hitting, things will work out. We're optimistic. The cupboard isn't bare."
It wouldn't be a surprise to see the Bulldogs still playing come regional time.