Effingham Daily News
First-year coach John Niebrugge knows full well he walked into a desirable situation.
Altamont went 24-5 last spring, and if it weren't for a late-season injury bug to the team's top pitchers, the Indians may have advanced even further than the opening round of the Woodlawn Sectional.
Yet Altamont still had a tremendous season, placing second in the NTC tournament and winning its own regional championship over Ramsey.
But with the departure of ace Katie Lange, Niebrugge's pitching staff will have to be well managed to combat the daily grind of a long season. Deidre Ledbetter, the top returning pitcher, is coming off an offseason plagued by back injuries.
Ledbetter will be the unquestioned number one of this year's staff, a small rotation that figures to be just three deep. In order for Altamont to again challenge in the playoffs, Niebrugge will pay close attention to Ledbetter's innings.
"She's going to be one of the best in the area if she's 100 percent," he said. "I don't know if she's ready to do Saturday back-to-back games. We will definitely monitor her. We're going to sit down and go through the schedule, she'll pitch big conference games obviously, regional games."
Ledbetter was named to the Decatur Herald & Review honorable mention all-area team last spring, and will be the Indians' key component to keeping opposing teams from crossing home plate.
"If she goes down we will struggle," Niebrugge said. "With her, we always have a chance to win."
When Ledbetter isn't on the mound, Niebrugge plans to use juniors Lauren Ohnesorge and Nikki Tharp to round out his rotation. So far, the two have battled evenly through the preseason, and Niebrugge says the decision on who to start could be made on a daily basis.
"Right now nobody has come to the forefront," he said. "It will be whoever is throwing strikes that day. You get to re-enter a pitcher once, so if one isn't doing it I can use the other. It depends."
Though the pitching situation may seem like cause for concern, Altamont faithful can take a sigh of relief with the offensive firepower the Indians possess. With an average of 9.5 runs per game last season, the 2013 Altamont squad figures to wear our the bases as well.
"Even if (Deidre) doesn't pitch," Niebrugge said, "we know we have a chance with our hitting. We know we can hit."
Junior Gabby Alwardt has already caught Niebrugge's attention at the plate, and the shortstop should do the same with opposing teams when the season rolls around.
"She could possibly be the best hitter on the team," he said. "She had to quit last year for some personal reasons, so she's really looking forward to playing this year. She will turn some heads in the conference hitting-wise."
Classmate Lauren White owns a fantastic balance of both offensive and defensive talents, and will use her skills behind the plate for Niebrugge's team.
"She's the daughter of a catcher, her sister caught, she just loves the position," Niebrugge said. " She has a cannon for a right arm, she will shut down the other team's running. In girls softball a great catcher is invaluable, (Lauren) can hit for power."
The last power hitter for Altamont is Alex Teasley, who should play some first as well as other positions in the infield. Other than those three that can lay the timber, Altamont has a plethora of speedsters to advance the bags.
"I bet there were eight players last year with double digit stolen bases," Niebrugge said. "Team speed is going to be a big strength of ours."
The Indians should have no trouble getting to first either, as Niebrugge is increasingly confident with all the girls that might see extended varsity action. Outfielders Joleen Northrop and Madison Ohnesorge are two more players Niebrugge hopes will contribute at the plate.
"As long as Joleen is hitting she will definitely see some playing time," he said. "Maddie is a slapper, she gets on base and can steal. She's old-school softball."
Other players that should be regulars in the rotation are Josie Phillips at short stop, and Cory Dorr and Chandra Smith at third or in the outfield. No matter who Niebrugge selects, however, they should be able to hit the softball.
"I can put nine girls out there that can actually hit," he said. "There are two others I'm not scared to put out there either."
The Indians' run in the postseason last spring left them wanting more, and Niebrugge said his girls have set the goals high once again for this year's campaign.
"Our goals are to win the conference and win the regional," he said. "That's what the girls are wanting."
Altamont will look to take the first step in capturing another regional crown today when the Indians battle South Central, weather permitting.
Braden Layer can be reached at 217-347-7151, ext. 123, or at firstname.lastname@example.org.