Young Vikings ready to challenge league's best

Kori Looker returns to start at third base for the Lawrence softball team.
Kori Looker returns to start at third base for the Lawrence softball team.

APPLETON, Wis. -- The faces may have changed for the Lawrence University softball team, but the expectations for the Vikings remain the same.

Lawrence lost two-thirds of its 2016 lineup as five senior starters graduated, but Vikings coach Kim Tatro believes this year's squad can prosper. Lawrence opens its season Friday and will play 12 games during a week in Clermont, Fla.

"I don't think our expectations change at all," said Tatro, who enters her 23rd season at Lawrence. "We may take a different route to get there, but our goals are still the same. We have enough of the core back that knows what it's like to be successful. The huge key for us is staying healthy."

The Vikings have a small roster with just 12 players, but Lawrence has some key players back and an influx of new talent.

"I do think, call me crazy, that when we're firing on all cylinders and everyone is doing their thing, we can be pretty successful in the Midwest Conference," Tatro said.

The Vikings return regular starters Madeline MacLean, Kori Looker, Rachel Urich and Sofie Pedersen, along with Marisa Thackston, who missed time due to injury in 2016.

Perhaps the key returning player is senior catcher Sam Belletini, who missed all of last season due to injury. A career .350 hitter, Belletini is a 2015 All-Midwest Conference and All-Great Lakes Region selection. Belletini has pounded out 23 doubles, one triple, four homers and 44 runs batted in during her career.

"It's like having another coach on the field. She knows the game," Tatro said of Belletini. "The value she brings to the table from a mental perspective might even be greater than the the tools she brings from a physical perspective."

Belletini will be catching a trio of pitchers with MacLean leading the way. MacLean went 10-8 with a 3.67 earned run average as a rookie in 2016, and she hit .301 with three homers and 13 RBI. Newcomers Lexi Angemi and Emilia Jackson also figure to see time in the circle.

"It sounds weird for us to talk about depth at any position with just 12, but we feel really comfortable with our pitchers," Tatro said.

"All three have different strengths and that's good for us. If someone's out there and struggling, we can make changes. They are all very capable of playing other positions as well. We can keep them in the game and maybe go back to them."

Angemi is likely to man first base, and Jackson could see action in the outfield.

With Thackston back at second base, Urich will slide over to shortstop and Looker returns at third. Senior Rheya Upadhyaya returns to left field after missing the 2016 season, and sophomore Sofie Pedersen slides over to right.

The most electric newcomer looks to be freshman Amanda Karnatz, who will patrol center field.

"We have high expectations for Amanda, and she has some pretty high expectations for herself," Tatro said. "She has a skill set that's often difficult to teach. It's not that she's flat-out fast. She's smart and flat-out fast. She's a very dominant outfielder who covers a lot of ground and can throw out people with the best of them."

The Vikings' depth is limited, but sophomore Sophie Carter will back up Belletini behind the plate and rookie Summer Kopitzke will be a utility player.

Tatro said she's anxious to see her team in game action against a challenging schedule in Florida.

"We just will not be sure what to expect until we take the field and see how we respond," Tatro said. "As the season goes on, hopefully we grow and mature."