Manhattan Softball vs Highland Park

In this file photo, Manhattan’s Jessica Hagadorn (left) receives instructions from head softball coach Connie Miller (right) during a game against Highland Park at the Twin Oaks Sports Complex in 2019. Manhattan starts its 2021 season Friday, hosting Lawrence High. First pitch is set for 6:15 p.m.

The last time Manhattan High played a softball game, Kaitlyn Gregiore, Logan Neitzel, Paige Dupler and Ellie Hacker were still learning program’s culture.

Hacker was a sophomore in 2019. Gregiore, Neitzel and Dupler were mere freshmen. They took their queues from players like Haleigh Harper and McKenna Claussen.

Now Harper and Clauusen are gone, as is the class behind them. When the Indians throw the first pitch of their home-opener against Lawrence at 6:15 p.m. Friday, Gregiore, Neitzel, Dupler and Hacker must demonstrate what they learned from their predecessors.

Manhattan head softball coach Connie Miller is not concerned about her clubhouse’s accelerated power transition, though. Sure, her four upperclassmen never have led this team before. But Gregiore, Neitzel and Dupler all identify softball as their main sport, and Hacker played a key role on the Indians’ volleyball team last fall.

So when the inexperienced Indians (seven underclassmen on varsity) need guidance, Miller trusts her experienced core to provide it.

“Stepping into a leadership role is really not too big of a stretch for them,” Miller said. “You know, they’re used to playing at a competitive level; they’ve all played above their age bracket. I don’t know. There’s so many of those kids looking up to them that I feel like it’s fairly easy for them.”

“Easy” isn’t a word that describes Manhattan’s 2019 season, though. The Indians finished 5-16 after losing 15-3 to Dodge City in the first round of sub-state. Dupler allowed 10 runs on a rare occasion Gregoire did not bear the brunt of the pitching.

Gregoire pitched nearly every inning for Manhattan as a freshman because Dupler, the Indians’ only other viable arm, also was their only catcher. Both players will have more flexibility this season, though, thanks to additions like sophomore Kierra Goos and freshman Jaden McGee.

Goos, a transfer from a school in Missouri, is Manhattan’s most versatile pitcher. Her six-pitch palette will keep opposing hitters guessing.

McGee, a six-foot-tall freshman, might be the hardest thrower on staff. Miller likes the way McGee generates power using her “lanky leverage.”

Those additions will prove key in the Centennial League, where Miller said pitching depth reigns supreme.

“If you don’t have multiple pitchers and some pretty stud players, you’re gonna get beat a lot,” Miller said. “We’ve taken our lumps, especially in years past where we only had one true pitcher to lean on. Being able to have multiple weapons, as far as pitchers go, is the thing that I think will help us the most.”

Miller expects to see a boost in Manhattan’s bats this season, too. She called Gregoire “a force” at the plate. She likes what she’s seen from Goos and Hacker in practice, too. Then again, Miller can’t make any firm judgments about her team until she sees them in action. As of Monday, she still was finalizing her opening day lineup.

That first lineup probably won’t look like the last. Miller might make several changes throughout the season. With a team as young as hers, Miller wants to see how her players handle the varsity game before assigning permanent labels.

“We have to get that gel going,” Miller said. “You can practice and practice and practice, but the gel happens in game situations and when the pressure’s on.”