PREP SOFTBALL: Smith starts new chapter at Danville

Mar. 9—DANVILLE — Megan Smith has shown the love of the game of softball as a player.

Now she gets the opportunity as a head coach.

After being on former coach Corey Pullin's staff, Smith will now take over the helm for the Danville High softball team after Pullin's retirement.

"I am a Danville alum, lettered in softball and went on to play at DACC and went to William Penn University," Smith said. "Corey was ready to retire and after seeing the passion and love I have for the game and the girls, he said he found his replacement. I only coached travel ball before so this is a big leap for me, but I am really excited and I have a lot of familiar faces to help with players and staff and they have all been very great."

With a few seniors on last season's team, Smith has a lot of players that have experience.

"We only had a handful of seniors that we lost and unfortunately there were some girls that did not return," Smith said. "So we have a lot of young girls to face that, so this will not be an easy year. We are going to face a lot of adversity and that can show character and we want to help and mold them.

"Ka'Leah Bellik is our offensive player of the year last year and she knows a lot about the game and she is quick to help out with those who don't know a lot about the game. Kendall Rannebarger is also a top player for us and will help lead the team as well. They can step into that role."

The Vikings' first game will be against Westville on Wednesday and Smith said they will learn a lot in that first game.

"It is going to be tough because they are good in hitting and pitching, so it will be a great experience," Smith said. "I said to them in practice: If you played easy teams, you beat them and practice as usual or play a team like Westville or better teams. Maybe we get beat, but we take a lot of things that we can work on and grow from and work that much harder. It will be tough, but hopefully we can learn from it."

The Tigers are going for their fourth straight Vermilion Valley Conference title and will depend on pitcher Abby Sabalaskey for her senior season.

"She's been working hard and we are looking for good things this year," Westville coach Jay Katavich said. "She works well with the team and tries to keep the team unified. She is our only senior on the team. She will be surely missed, but we are looking forward to her having a great season."

After Sabalaksey, the Tigers have young players with some experience.

"We have Lani Gondzur and Madison Jones is a veteran outfielder. They also do great hitting for us," Katavich said. "A lot of sophomores started last year with Jazmyn Bennett, Laney Cook and Lily Kiesel and we have some freshmen stepping in with Daylin Zaayer and Layla Atwood and Danika Hamer. Those freshman girls, from seventh grade on, have been to state in junior high and they will make a great impact for us."

With a first-round playoff loss last season, the Tigers are hoping to make an deeper impact this season.

I am hoping we can repeat as Conferecn Champs and I thinkwe can make a deep run Th stars will have to align and you have to play good ball and we hope to do that. We were 23-6 last year and we had the dissapointment of losing in the first roudn last year but we are lookign forward to a good showing this year. I am looking forward to the season and on Monday, we play Rantoul, the Tuscola nd then Danville, We have three good tests to start the season.

Westville's biggest competition is Salt Fork. The Storm lost some big players like pitcher Kendyl Hurt, but coach Kayln Learnard said there is a lot left.

"We lost three seniors: Our second baseman, pitcher and outfield," Learnard said. "Even though we lost those three, they were major leaders for us, especially with Kendyl in the circle. It hurts, but we are definitely looking at seniors, juniors and sophomores step up and take a bigger role."

The only senior this year is Macie Russell.

"She is a great athlete and a great kid and I know she will be great for us," Learnard said.

With Russell being the only senior, Learnard has options for the younger players — starting with pitching.

"We have a few that we are looking to. We have Karli McGee and Morgan Russell will see some innings as well," Learnard said. "Ava Ringstrom was our catcher last year and did a great job in her first year of catching ever, so I am eager to see what she can do this year and Sailor Pacot will take a different role in the infield this year.

"We have Alexa Jamison, who will be our shortstop this year and she will be one of our leaders and Hadley Pierce played third last year and a little bit of first, so we will see what happens with that."

Learnard said that beyond Salt Fork and Westville, the possibility for a new team could emerge.

"Obviously, Westville with Sabalaskey will be strong as always," Learnard said. "I am thinking Bismarck will be strong. I am seeing a lot of teams come out strong the last few years and they will come out this year."