Gladstones softball team has eight players with starting experience back, including pitching ace Megan Kirchem

With the return of a host of players from last year’s team that won a school-record 26 games and made the Class 4A softball semifinals, Gladstone should be a power in the Tri-Valley Conference and in the state again this spring.

The Gladiators return eight players that saw starting action last year, including four who garnered first-team TVC all-star honors — seniors Megan Kirchem and Julia Schumaker, junior Andra Breshears and sophomore Kat Kerr.

Kirchem, who mixes up her pitches and throws strikes, is the top returning pitcher in the league, and among the top returning pitchers in the state.

Nena Dudley, who split pitching duties with Kirchem last year, has transferred to Barlow. Molalla’s Sierra Benson, last year’s TVC Pitcher of the Year, has graduated, along with the top pitchers from Madras (Jamie Moe) and North Marion (Katlin Wampole).

But Kirchem returns in great form. The Gladiator ace threw a one-hitter, striking out 10 and walking two, in last week’s season opener, a 3-0 win over Stayton. She struck out 12, walked no one, scattered three hits and allowed no earned runs last Thursday, as the Gladiators won 5-1 at Central.

“She’s working hard,” said Gladstone coach Bruce Mortier. “Twenty-two strikeouts in two games, and she seems to get stronger as the game goes along.... She mixes up her pitches a lot — off-speed, drop and curve. And she throws strikes....”

Schumaker returns to start at second base. She beat out infield hits for singles and scored runs in both of last week’s games.

The Gladiators will also be counting on Breshears’ bat this spring. She returns to play designated hitter and as a back-up in the outfield.

Kerr, who garnered first-team all-conference honors in the outfield a year ago, moves to help solidify the infield, playing shortstop.

Other players returning with starting experience include: senior Meghan Winkle, juniors Molly Webster and Melisa Campos, and sophomore Kennedy Coy.

Winkle, a second-team all-conference selection in 2013, returns to start at first base, and she’s gotten stronger. She powered a three-run home run over the fence in right-center in last week’s win at Central. It was the first round-tripper of her high school career.

Webster, a three-year starter, returns to centerfield; Campos returns to start at third base.

Coy, a part-time starter in the outfield last season, moves behind the plate, where she’ll attempt to fill the shows of first-team all-conference catcher Ashlee Muller, who graduated.

Rounding out the starting lineup are two freshmen, Kenzi McLeod, in left field; and Madi Mott, in right field. Mott will also serve as a back-up to Kirchem in the pitcher’s circle.

“Both freshmen have played a lot of ASA ball and they’re both good hitters,” said Mortier.

Mortier said he expects La Salle and Madras to be his toughest competition in the TVC this spring.

La Salle returns honorable mention all-league pitcher Loryn Williams.

The Gladiators (26-4, 12-3) were runners-up to Molalla (20-6, 13-2) in the TVC last spring. Madras (15-12, 7-8) and La Salle (13-11, 7-8) tied for third place.

Mortier says his Gladiators still have room for improvement in their hitting and defensive play, but he likes his players’ work ethic and attitude.

“They’ve got great attitudes,” Mortier said. “They want to learn and they work hard in practice. And they get along. There’s great team chemistry.”

The Gladiators’ get their final tuneups for the league season next week, hosting Hood River on Tuesday, playing Sweet Home on the road on April 3 and hosting Astoria in a doubleheader on Friday, April 4.

Their TVC opener is a home game with Estacada on Monday, April 7.

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