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Crook County High School softball team returns most of last year's state runner-up squad

LON AUSTIN/
CENTRAL OREGONIAN
 - Second baseman Kalyn Martinez fields a ball during practice. The Cowgirls, who are coming off of a second-place finish at state last year, are looking to make another deep playoff run this year. The team opened their season on Monday with a doubleheader against Redmond. The Cowgirls are back in action on Wednesday when they host the Mountain View Cougars in a 4 p.m. game.

There are high expectations for this year's Crook County High School softball team.

After all, the team returns 10 players from last year's state runner-up team.

Add in Mekynzie Wells, who started early in the season a year ago before ending the year early, and throw in a couple of freshmen who are talented enough to step straight into the varsity lineup, and there is a lot to be excited about.

"It is a talented, hard-working bunch," first year head coach Jeremy Puckett said. "The kids are really buying onto the goal of winning the state championship. They got a taste of it last year, so I think that they have committed to working very hard."

Although the team lost just four players from last year's squad, that doesn't mean that it will be easy to get back to the state finals.

One especially key member of last year's squad is gone, starting pitcher, McKuenzie McCormick, who is now pitching in college.

"McKuenzie was a huge loss," Puckett said. "But we have four pitchers at the varsity level this year."

Although those pitchers may not be as dominant as McCormick was, Puckett is confident that his pitchers can do the job.

The Cowgirls gave up just 3.7 runs a game a year ago, one of the lowest defensive totals in the state.

With most of the team's defense returning, the team should still make it difficult for opponents to score runs.

At the same time, the Cowgirls scored seven runs a game last year. With most of their offensive firepower returning, Crook County could be even more efficient offensively this year.

"It's going to be a little bit different offense from what they have previously ran over the years," Puckett said. "I think that we are going to build a lot of excitement with it."

He added that the team has some power and a lot of team speed. That means that there could be home runs, mixed in with some opportunities to play small ball as well.

"Hitting, I think that we are moving in a good direction," Puckett said. "Small ball will be part of the game, and then we have some kids on the team that are super-fast, so we are going to steal a lot of bases."

Players to watch for include center fielder Abby Dalton, outfielders Ashley Owens and Jillian Denney, first baseman Emma Ackley, as well as catcher Caitlyn Elliott.

Alayna Denney, Brooke Dalton, Kalyn Martinez and Wells are all expected to be part of the mix as well.

Although Puckett is new to the program, there is still plenty of continuity. JV coach Wayne Hilderbrand is still involved with the program as well as assistant coach Gary White.

In addition, former head coach Jessica Cross continued to help with the team during winter practice sessions.

"Gary is awesome," Puckett said. "He's awesome with the kids, and he's always putting in a lot of time down here with the fields and showing me the ropes. And Jessica has been a big part as well. It's been super easy adjusting, and that's due to Gary and Jessica for sure."

The Cowgirls opened their season on Monday with a home doubleheader against Redmond. The team will be back in action on Wednesday when they host the Mountain View Cougars in a 4 p.m. game.

"I'm really looking forward to the season," Puckett said. "It's great to finally be outside. Now getting the community involved in backing us up and supporting the girls is really important. I just hope for a great season."

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