With the conclusion of the 2017 softball season officially in the rear view mirror, the St. Paul Buckaroos have a lot of positives to look back on. In just their second season of playing varsity softball, the Bucks improved by six wins over last year's team, jumping from a last place finish in Special District 2 to fourth place this year.
Opposing coaches took note, placing pitcher Elizabeth Brentano, short-stop Logan Robinson and catcher Megan Tuck on the all-conference second team, while second baseman Rachel Vela garnered honorable mention consideration.
Brentano — one of two seniors along with Tamra Weaver and Abby Coleman — was the heart and soul of the team this year. The team's starting pitcher, Brentano went 5-7 on the season while throwing one game in relief.
"She brought big-time leadership to the team and without her, we don't make it as far as we did," SPHS coach Carl Kordenat said. "The girls voted her unanimous team captain for a reason and she showed that all year long."
She was also one of the team's top offensive threats, batting .500 on the season with two home runs and 29 RBIs.
Arguably the Bucks' best returning athlete and a team leader to boot, Robinson made the difficult transition from third base to short stop this season, proving her versatility and worth to Kordenat's staff.
"Defensively, I know she struggled making that change, but the type of athlete she is, she'll put in the hard work to make that work," Kordenat said. "She'll take that leadership role next year and as a senior, she'll be someone we rely on heavily."
At the plate, the junior batted .428 while leading the team in steals (30) and runs scored (37).
Tuck, a sophomore, was an offensive powerhouse for the Bucks and one of the top defensive players behind home plate in the conference.
"I've seen huge improvement from last year to this year, not only controlling the pitching staff, but in relaying signals to the infield," Kordenat said. "Her arm is right there and I would rank her in the top of the league, and I think the coaches would as well."
Tuck batted .544 for the season, leading the team in both doubles (11) and RBIs (33).
Another sophomore, Vela batted .438 this season and was second on the team with 21 steals while leading the Bucks in fielding percentage (.954) at second base.
"She improved her batting average over 100 points this year," he said.
With Robinson at short-stop and Vela at second base, the Bucks have two strong building blocks at the most important infield positions to build on next season and make a run at the playoffs after missing out by a tiny margin this spring.
"That's our middle infield next year and it doesn't get much stronger than that," he said.
In their second season of varsity softball, the Bucks finished just one spot out of the state playoffs in the OSAA rankings. Not only that, but the team that beat out St. Paul for the last at-large berth was none other than the Regis Rams — a fellow Special District 2 rival that St. Paul beat in two of three games this season to finish two games ahead of the Rams in the final league standings.
But OSAA rankings trump league standings, giving 17th-ranked Regis the nod over No. 18 St. Paul.
"They earned it. They played maybe a game or two better in the non-league schedule than we did, and that's something as coaches that we'll go over (next year) and try to push ourselves next year," Kordenat said.
Rather than be upset at the disappointing playoff fallout at the end of the season, he would rather see the returning members of the team hold onto that feeling and use it as motivation to accomplish even more next year.
"As athletes, they need something to drive them, knowing that they missed the spot by one in the OSAA rankings and know that the team that took that spot was one that we beat two out of three times," Kordeant said.
Given the upward trend of the Bucks' first two seasons playing varsity softball, an improved record along with a postseason berth is the next step in the maturation process of the team. Last year's inaugural varsity team was 5-11 overall and finished at the bottom of the conference standings with a 1-9 record.
This year's squad was 10-10 overall and 6-9 in league to finish in the middle of the pack in fourth place. In 2018, the Bucks are looking to crack that top three in the standings and prove they belong among the state's best trams in the playoffs.
"To miss the playoffs by one spot, it shows great growth on their part," Kordenat said. "Hopefully we'll be there next year right behind Kennedy and Central Linn and battle for that three-spot."