It will be invaluable for a Grove team that hopes to be knocking on the state tournament door in 2017.
The Lady Red are coming off a 28-9 season, the best output since the program reached the pinnacle with a state championship in 2012.
If the close of last season is any indication, Grove, which will make the drop to Class 4A, might be primed for a deep postseason run.
The Lady Red defeated two of three state tournament teams in eventual champion Pryor and semifinalist Collinsville on the back end of their schedule to pick up steam and gain momentum for what is a strong core of returning starters.
Head coach Jeremy Collins, who is entering his eighth season, returns seven of them – a healthy dose for any team with state tournament dreams.
“Our expectations are to get back there [state tournament],” Collins said. “We had a chance to get back there last year but came up a little bit short and lost to a really good Durant team, which ended up losing in the championship game.
“We have a lot of experience coming back so we’re in a good situation.”
The two departures are big ones, however.
Gone are Megan Porter, an All-State selection at first base, and catcher Kai Redus.
“Those two are big losses,” Collins said. “They were big factors for us last year and it’s hard to replace players like that, but we have to find the pieces to fit in there. We have some capable kids that can slide into their spots.”
Collins will have a four-year starter in the pitcher’s circle – a crucial element in veteran and senior Katie Bunch.
As a junior, Bunch posted a 1.66 earned run average over 198.2 innings. She collected 131 strikeouts and finished with a 23-7 record. Bunch also recorded three saves in five opportunities.
“Katie got thrown into the fire her freshman year,” Collins said. “She was the only pitcher that we had. She threw every game except for a period during the middle of the season when she had some tendinitis issues. She went through some growing pains as a freshman and sophomore, but she was able to learn during that time and it’s paid off.
“She has high expectations for us this year. Experienced players in the circle are important to us as a coaching staff. With her being able to go out there and command the game now, she understands what (assistant coach Drew Osborne) is going to call. She already has it in her mind what we’re going to do. She understands the game and changes speeds really well, so it’s huge to have her back.”
Grove will have some depth at the pitcher position. Also back is sophomore Mikalle Pair. Laken Malone will be a newcomer as a freshman.
Pair had nine appearances last year, six of those as a starter. She had a 1.52 ERA in 32.1 innings of work. Pair was 5-1 with a pair of saves, while logging 17 strikeouts.
Bunch is one of three seniors. She joins another four-year starter in versatile outfielder Megan Tramel and right fielder Lacy Rowe, who will be in her first year as a starter.
Tramel, a middle-of-the-lineup hitter, was among team leaders in batting in 2016. She hit .396 and drove in 13 runs. She is expected see time in both center field and left field.
“Megan made huge strides last year,” Collins said. “She raised her average from .250 as a sophomore and almost hit .400 last year. She’s just gotten better every year. She’s also a three-time state champ in pole vault. She’s gone from being a good high school player to a really good high school player. She will be in the middle of the order and drive in a lot of runs.”
Rowe played in 28 games and batted .219 last season. She made a big leap forward with a productive offseason and will be inserted into the cleanup spot of the order.
Juniors Kianna Pellegrino, Blaise Redus and Macee Barnes each return as three-year starters. Redus (second base) and Barnes (shortstop) give the Lady Red a strong duo in the middle of the infield, and Pellegrino will continue her role at third base.
Pellegrino and Barnes were monsters with the bat as a sophomore tandem from the top of the order.
Pellegrino hit an eye-popping .442 from the lead-off spot to lead the team in batting. She registered a team-high 53 hits and 37 runs scored and also led with a .500 on-base percentage.
“We go as she goes,” Collins said of Pellegrino. “She’s been our best hitter average wise over the last two years and she’s that spark for us at the top of the lineup.”
Barnes followed Pellegrino with a .411 average. She had a team-best 26 RBIs and also led the way with 15 doubles.
“Macee’s got a little bit of pop and she’s been right up there with Kianna in batting average,” said Collins. “She’s a very solid hitter.”
Redus was productive at the plate as well, hitting .347 and knocking in 17 runs.
“Blaise has some pop,” Collins said. “She hit her first home last year during regionals. She’s a great hitter and a good bunter for us as well. She’ll be somewhere in the middle of the order.”
Sophomore Elizabeth Cash and Pair will compete for time at first base as Collins searches for Porter’s replacement.
“Both of them do a good job at first base and both of them have a pretty good bat,” said Collins. “Right now they’re splitting time and will probably do so early on in the season.”
Filling Kai Redus’ void at the catcher position will be both junior Hayden Hargis and freshman Ava Sarwinski.
Other candidates in the outfield include junior Eraya Elder, who has two years of starting experience, sophomore Anna Pace and junior Emma Fields.
Defense will be a major strong point for Grove.
“We were very good defensively last year and we expect that to continue this year,” Collins said. “It helped out our pitchers a lot. We have the experience and we know we’re very consistent.”
For Collins and his group, it’s about getting better each day and keep improving.
“There’s always things we can improve on,” he said. “We always try to fix things here and there at the plate. We’ve really been working on first and third situations. We have to fix that and continue to get better as the season goes along.”
The two biggest things that will carry the Lady Red will be experience and depth at every position.
“We’ve got depth in both the outfield and infield and we can move people around,” Collins said. “We also have depth at catcher and at pitcher. We have some younger kids who will get some time as well.”
Grove was scheduled to open its season Monday at Stilwell. The Lady Red will remain on the road with a visit to Claremore Thursday, Aug. 10. The home opener is at 5:30 p.m. Friday, Aug. 11, against Vinita.