Mercy High School softball fans can expect their favorite team to continue a long-standing tradition of excellence again this year.
Though five of the nine starters are new, the Marlins return core elements of their team that was 26-4, won a second straight Catholic League championship and was a regional finalist.
Mercy, which began the new season Tuesday at Warren Regina, is ranked No. 8 in the Michigan High School Softball Coaches Association’s Division 1 poll.
“We’re very excited to get this season started, get on the field and actually see what this team is capable of,” new head coach Alec Lesko said.
The Marlins will be led by senior third baseman Alex Sobczak, a four-year starter and three-time, all-Observer selection. She will play next year at the University of Michigan.
Sobczak, who will bat in the leadoff position again, hit .613 and had 35 RBI. She also had 11 doubles, three triples and nine home runs.
In addition to that, Sobczak stole 24 bases and scored a team-best 62 runs. More than half of her 36 walks were intentional passes, contributing to her .733 on-base percentage.
“Alex is one of the top hitters in the country,” Lesko said, adding he believes Sobczak will contend for a starting role with the Wolverines in 2016. “She’s the Barry Bonds of high school softball right now.
“She was given an intentional pass a lot of times, even with the bases loaded. If people are afraid to pitch to her, it just gives us a base runner. It’s guaranteed every time if they don’t pitch to her.
“She’s a senior captain and has embraced that role. She’s doing a tremendous job with leadership. We couldn’t ask anything more.”
Pitcher returns, too
The Marlins also return junior pitcher Abby Krzywiecki, a two-time, all-area player. It was with her bat she earned a Division 1 scholarship to South Alabama.
Krzywiecki, who plays first base when she’s not pitching, batted .530 with a team-high 54 RBI. Her 53 hits included nine doubles, one triple and seven home runs.
As the primary pitcher, she was 18-1 with one save and a 1.62 ERA. She recorded 120 strikeouts and 49 walks in 1211/3 innings.
“Abby is a big-time Division 1 college-style player,” Lesko said. “Her position in college won’t be pitcher, but she continues to work hard on pitching and for her high school team. She’s a big-time hitter, and we’re tickled to have her back.”
The Marlins graduated a veteran backstop in Sam Bauer. Juniors Anna Kiafoulis and Cari Padula are returning varsity players who were battling for the starting nod.
They’ll likely share that role. Padula also can play first base and other positions, and Lesko said he expects Kiafoulis to help the team at the plate as the designated player.
Rest of the infield
Senior Jordan Johnson is another returning player who moves into a starting role at first base. She is good with the glove and can drive the ball, according to Lesko.
Kellie Abeska, who played second base, transferred to one of the Walled Lake schools. Nicole Belans, Alyssa Sweeney and Mary Reeber – all members of a large sophomore class – were competing at that position.
Mercy also lost all-area shortstop Jordan Ewald, who is playing at UM-Dearborn, through graduation. Sophomore Shannon Gibbons returns to the varsity and will fill that role.
“She played some outfield, a little infield and even pitched,” Lesko said. “She’s very athletic. She has that position to start out. Those three at second base also have been working hard in the middle infield.”
The outfield lineup
Senior Molly Murphy is a four-year varsity player and the other senior captain. She started in right field and will move to center this year. Murphy batted .274 with a home run and 17 RBI.
“She’s versatile; she also can play first base and catch for us,” Lesko said. “We look for her to help out offensively. She’s showing great leadership, too. The team is very together.
“We’re really excited about the lineup. We have power; we have speed. We have kids who can put the ball on the ground and hit it over the fence. It’s a nice combination to have.”
Sophomore Sophia VanAcker is a returning varsity player and will be in left field. Freshman Anna Dixon wass talented enough to make the varsity and will start in right field.
VanAcker, who will bat in the No. 2 spot again, is a left-handed hitter with good speed. She’s a good player to have hitting in front of Krzywiecki.
“Coming back as a sophomore, she looks much smoother,” Lesko said. “She has matured a great deal. We’re looking for her to do good things offensively.”
Dixon also bats from the left side, but she’s more of power hitter, according to Lesko. Some of the middle infielders are versatile and could play in the outfield, too.
The roster also includes junior pitcher Andrea Elmore, junior outfielder Taylor Lombard and sophomore infielder Morgan Ewald, who also can go behind the plate.
Always high goals
Lesko was the head coach at Trenton High School for 17 years and is an assistant coach at UM-Dearborn. He also has coached in travel organizations for many years.
He was a Mercy assistant last year and has switched roles with his daughter, Sara McGavin, who remains on staff with longtime assistant coaches Jerry Ashe and Nancy Malinowski.
Following the Tuesday doubleheader with Regina, the Marlins play two more games Thursday at Birmingham Marian and will host the Mercy Invitational Saturday at Founders Sports Park.
Mercy’s first objective is to win a third consecutive Catholic League championship, according to Lesko.
“After that our goal is to take that momentum and go as far as we can in the state tournament, with the ultimate prize being a state championship,” Lesko said.