WAUPUN — Three softball teams from the East Central Conference made it to the WIAA sectional round last season — and the league champion wasn’t even among them.
Waupun won its sixth straight conference title with a 13-1 record while Kewaskum — who defeated the Warriors in the WIAA Division 2 regional championship to end their season — was just a game back in second place. Winneconne and Campbellsport were the next tier of teams with 9-5 records while Kettle Moraine Lutheran battled hard for a 7-7 record before making a run to the sectional semifinals.
And each one of those teams brings back its top starting pitcher.
It all adds up to what could be a competitive ECC race, as a slew of contenders try to keep Waupun from winning a seventh consecutive crown.
“Obviously, that’s our goal,” Waupun head coach Tom Hagstrom said. “We’d like to get another ECC conference championship. We know there’s a lot of good teams in our conference. There were three sectional qualifying teams and that didn’t even include us and Winneconne who didn’t get to sectionals.
“There are some really good teams in our conference and really good pitching.”
Hagstrom said the Warriors will be led by four very good seniors in pitcher Megan Van Ruiswyk, second baseman Megan Gerber, utility Kaylee Rahn and first baseman Erin Schmitt — all of whom competed with the Warriors at the Division 2 state tournament as freshmen.
“I think a lot of the teams in our conference are better this year, but I think that’s good because it will push us a little bit, too,” Van Ruiswyk said. “I think those are games that we tend to have more fun in, anyway.”
Van Ruiswyk went 9-4 last year with 88 strikeouts and a 1.76 ERA, garnering first-team All-ECC honors.
“I kind of just want to go out with a bang,” she said. “I think we can do good things if we work together as a team. I think we’ll be pretty good.”
The Warriors must fill voids left by third baseman Hailey Pluim and shortstop Danielle Hopp — a four-year starter — and pitcher Yvette Navis. The trio were a part of 91 wins over the course of their four-year varsity careers.
“We lost our left side of the infield — both third base and shortstop,” Van Ruiswyk said. “I think we’re stepping up all right though. We have big shoes to fill, but our girls are really working hard, so I think we’ll be OK.”
Claire Harder will move from left field to shortstop after playing there sparingly the last couple of years when Hopp wasn’t able to. Katrina Pokorny will step in at Waupun’s No. 2 pitcher behind Van Ruiswyk, but when she’s not pitching, she could play the outfield with juniors Claire Peterson and Rachel White or battle sophomores Emily Walters and Makenna Harmsen for playing time at third base.
“Their main jobs last year were courtesy runners for us,” Hagstrom said of the sophomores. “Again, they’ve had that taste and they’re both pretty utility-use young ladies. They worked outfield last year. They’re working third base; they both can play shortstop. They’re pretty athletic young ladies. I want to find places to get them out onto the field in different capacities.
“One of them is going to be a courtesy runner — the one that’s not playing. We need that, too.”
Van Ruiswyk said she’s excited about having first-team all-conference pick Megan Gerber back at second base.
“Megan Gerber is always good behind me,” Van Ruiswyk said. “I’m happy to be with her again.”
She’s also happy to have her catcher Kylle Hraban back for another season. Hraban led the team with 26 RBIs last season to go along with a .392 batting average.
“Kylle Hraban is going to be strong,” Van Ruiswyk said. “Her hitting is going to be good because she put in a lot of time.”
Van Ruiswyk led Waupun with four home runs last season and had a .382 batting average and 17 RBIs.
“I’m looking for her to even step up to that next level,” Hagstrom said. “She’s been doing the powerlifting thing and her bat is just a step up in the strength. (She’s) even taken up a leadership role now.”
Van Ruiswyk — like the rest of the Warriors — wants the season to go like they plan.
“I just want to have the best season that I’ve personally ever had, so I’m just going to make the most out of every at-bat,” she said.