Some might view the 2016 softball season as a rebuilding year for the Butte High softball team after the Bulldogs advanced to the Class AA State Tournament last season before losing seven players.
Head coach Ryan Stosich and his staff aren't looking at things that way thanks to a wealth of young, athletic players, as well as the return of last season's pitching ace, sophomore Kaidy McClafferty.
"People can call it a rebuilding year but we don’t usually look at it like that," Stosich, who is in his second season as head coach, said. "We’ve had some pretty good players graduate and other players step right in and fill their roles, so hopefully that success continues."
One spot the Bulldogs don't need to worry about filling is pitcher, where McClafferty returns after starting the season as the team's top pitcher from Day 1 of her freshman year.
Her presence makes the Bulldogs' pitching a strength, one year after it was viewed as a question mark heading into the season.
I think anybody would tell you our strength is our pitching with Kaidy, I think it’s a no brainer," Stosich said. "Last year we knew we were going to have defense and we knew we werer going to have offense, we just didn’t know what our pitcher was going to give us, but we know what we’re going to get out of her now."
While the Bulldogs will be hurt by the loss of their No. 2 pitcher, Katlyn O'Brien, who tore her ACL during basketball season, Stosich remains confident that McClafferty will pick up the slack.
"It kind of hurt losing Katelyn O’Brien, but Kaidy will do a good job," he said. "I noticed she’s gotten a lot stronger, we don’t really keep speed on her, but she’s gotten a lot strong and worked hard in the off-season to get where she’s at. So hopefully she does what she did last year and a little better."
Offensively and defensively the team remains a mystery, partial due to all the of the roster turnover, but also due to the fact that the team has only been able to practice outside two times this spring.
"We’ve only been outside twice so it’s pretty tough to tell, we’re pretty young," Stosich said. "We only have two seniors, four juniors, and then rest are freshman and sophomores. I think we have 13 sophomores, so it’s kind of a work in progress right now. We’re evaluating, the coaching staff and myself, just evaluating each position, nobody has sewn anything up for sure yet."
Offensively Stosich thinks the team will hit for average this season after slugging to victories last year. Among the big bats who return are outfielder Katelyn Alley, the team's leading home run hitter from a season ago.
In addition to trying to learn on the fly about the team offensively, the defense also remains a mystery with so many new faces stepping in. Stosich admits the coaching staff will need to be patient with young squad, but is confident in their athletic abilities.
"I think we as coaches are going to have to be patient at the beginning," he said. "We’re going to have some young players out there. They’re very capable athletically and we expect them to make the plays."
Those young players will be tested right away, with the Bulldogs facing two of the top teams in the state on Saturday in Great Falls, Class AA runner-up Big Sky, and Class A runner-up Belgrade.
Despite the loss of seven seniors and the tough schedule to start, the goals remain the same for the Bulldogs: Get back to the State Tournament and play their best softball as the season winds down.
"There’s a lot of kids that have potential, and we’ll see if that potential comes out in them," Stosich said. "We’re going to mix-matching all weekend to see who can play. We’ll have a pretty good indication after this weekend who can play and who’s going to be down at the JV level."