The Essex High School softball team capped an undefeated season with a come-from-behind win in last year’s Division I championship to claim its fourth state title since 2007. If they’re going to continue that winning tradition, the Hornets will have to navigate a lot of changes this season.
The team lost five seniors from last year’s championship squad to graduation, including ace pitcher and two-time Gatorade Player of the Year Alexis Perry. Then, head coach Bill O’Neil announced his retirement after 22 years at the helm.
Taking over after a perfect season is an intimidating task, but new head coach Randy Wells isn’t daunted.
“The undefeated state championship season last year is more of an intimidation factor for the new varsity players this year,” he noted. “For those players it adds more questions like how can I fit or where do I fit into this team?”
Wells won’t have many questions about his fit, thanks to a decade of leading the team. He first joined the Hornets in 2002 as a pitching coach and then became a co-head coach with O’Neil in 2011.
“Bill is an amazing person and a great mentor. I learned so much from him about how to work with the school, parents and students-athletes,” Wells explained. “I’ve always thought Bill kept it fun but competitive for the players and it’s important that I continue that. I hope in my first year I can continue teaching the student-athletes how to handle failure as well as their success throughout the season. We always taught good sportsmanship to shed a good light on themselves, EHS and their community. That will still be a very high priority. After trying to accomplish all of that, Essex High School has a winning tradition that we will try to continue. Last year’s season will be hard to match, but there are ways we can improve.”
While O’Neil’s successor was obvious, the team’s lineup needed some reworking.
“We relied heavily on our pitching last year,” Wells said. “With Alexis Perry in the circle it was hard not to just sit there and watch her pitch. This year we have very young pitching, so the rest of the team will have to pick up the slack. Behind the young pitching is a veteran defense, which could end up being a bit busier this year.”
Wells describes the young pitching cohort that will consist of returning sophomore Ashley Gehsmann, freshman Alison Rutz and returning junior Karyn Svarczkopf as “more of an unknown than a weakness.” While waiting to assess the young pitchers talents in a game situation, the Hornets have five returning seniors that have proven their abilities on the field.
“The strength of this team will come from its senior leadership,” Wells explained. “The five seniors are Jessica Barnett, Elise Contois, Hillary Danis, Lauren Gilbert and Olivia Meuller: five very capable offensive and defensive players.
“The remaining players on the team are the key to our success,” he added. “All the good teams have about the same number of really good players. It’s the ability of the rest of the team that will make the difference.”
The Hornets will kick off their season in Rutland next Thursday at 4:30 p.m., before hosting Rice on Saturday at 11 a.m.