It’s time to take the field again

New Alpena Community College softball coach Erin Riopelle has reason to be excited about this season.

She also has reason to be a little nervous.

The Lumberjacks return just three players from last season, but they have a talented, athletic crop of freshmen who can make an immediate impact and help them compete for the MCCAA Eastern Conference title.

On the flip side, having a lot of newcomers means that time is needed to develop chemistry and a stretch of cold weather has limited the Lumberjacks to having only a few days of practice outside.

Nonetheless, ACC will get a chance to shake off the cold of winter and finally get out on the field when it opens the season today at Oakland at 1 p.m. The Lumberjacks will play at Mott on Saturday and Sunday.

“I’m excited but nervous. I’m excited because we do have some really strong players. I’m nervous because my first year here,” Riopelle said. “I like to coach a lot. I like softball. It’s just a great sport of strategy and athleticism and it’s very fun for me to coach.”

ACC’s group of strong players starts with pitching and Riopelle will have a lot of options to choose from. Returning sophomore Lindsay Ponik was part of the Lumberjacks’ rotation last year, but three other freshman pitchers all make a strong case for playing time.

Alex Chmura earned all-state honors at Arenac Eastern last season after earning the same honors playing in Alaska the year before. Laura Lewis pitched Alpena High to the regional finals last season and earned all-region and all-conference honors. Sara Mairose earned second-team all-conference honors last season at Ogemaw Heights.

“Some of them have more speed, some have more movement, so the combination is nice,” Riopelle said of her pitchers. “What’s nice is that since our season is so compact and we play so many games in such a short time, (we have) that ability to put another pitcher in if we need to.”

Catching all of them will be returning sophomore Karena Hipkins and Chmura will likely serve as her backup.

The Lumberjacks also have a lot of depth at several positions. Ponik will be among the candidates to play first base along with Mairose. Leann Strzelecki and Katie Cox could both see time at second base and Ashleigh Monticello and returning sophomore Lauren Seibert will likely vie for playing time at shortstop. Seibert could also see some time at third base along with Alyssa Griffore.

In the outfield, ACC will likely go with Paige Lewandowski, Cassandra Shaw and Katie Wollan with Cox and Griffore also in the mix.

The Lumberjacks’ lineup features no left-handed hitters, but ACC has several players with the ability to hit for power.

If last year is any indication, starting on the road could be just what ACC needs to open the season. The Lumberjacks stormed out of the gate last year, winning their first nine games, all on the road, and ended up going 10-2 in road games.

It was a different story at home though as ACC went 3-9 on their home field and finished the year at 15-13 and set a new single-season wins record despite the struggles at home.

“It was weird because we started off and all of our games were away and then when we got home we just kind of got in a slump,” Seibert said. “We just have to keep working hard.”

ACC will certainly be tested this weekend against Mott and Oakland which have already played more than two dozen games combined this season and finished first and third in the conference last year respectively.

Riopelle certainly knows the pressures her players are under, having played for ACC as an infielder and outfielder during the 2002 and 2003 seasons, but knows that her players are talented and have the potential to get better as the season goes on.

“They have the ability to go other places and play, so they’ve had some games under their belt already,” Riopelle said. “We might struggle a bit at first, but we just have to remember to stick to the basics and play ball.”