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Softball Preview: Can Southold pull off an encore?

After snapping a 20-year playoff drought and reaching a Long Island final for the first time in 30 years, what does the Southold/Greenport high school softball team do for an encore?

A repeat performance would be nice.

That’s precisely what the First Settlers have in mind. Of course, they have some adjustments to make. All-County centerfielder Toni Esposito, All-Conference shortstop Katie Tuthill and All-League first baseman Evelyn Cummings have moved on. They batted leadoff, third and fourth in the order, respectively.

That means new players must step into those roles.

Last year Southold (13-4) qualified for the postseason for the first time since 1997. Since no other Suffolk County Class C teams were in the playoffs, Southold advanced directly to the Long Island title game. Following a 24-day layoff, the Settlers lost to East Rockaway, 5-0, as righthander Emily Chelius threw a three-hit shutout with 11 strikeouts.

“It was a breakthrough season for Southold, the first time in 30 years that they got to the Long Island championship [game] and the first time in 20 years that they made the playoffs,” coach Skip Gehring said. “The biggest thing I would say about it is the girls [recognized] that they’re better than they think they are. The girls last year worked hard in practice every day and they’re looking to duplicate that this year.”

Southold can count on a corps of returning senior starters in All-League pitcher Ashley Hilary (12-4, 2.38 ERA, 56 strikeouts, six walks), shortstop Hannah Sutton (.479 batting average, 19 RBIs), centerfielder Grace Syron (.438, 16 RBIs, six doubles, eight stolen bases), second baseman Annie Lincoln, first baseman/third baseman Liz Clark (.374, 11 RBIs) and catcher Madison Hilton (.311, nine RBIs, seven stolen bases). Another returner is sophomore utility player Felecia Kayal.

Last year Gehring brought outfielder/first baseman Julia Jaklevic, third baseman Jenna McFarland and outfielder/infielder Olivia Daddona onto the varsity team for the playoffs. First baseman Reese Thompson, second baseman/first baseman Jessica Mele, pitcher Elizabeth Jernick and second baseman Ashley Payne join the team.

Once again, Southold, which turned 27 double plays in 17 games last year, will put a priority on defense.

“What I like the best is that they are driven to repeat what they did last year, to prove that last year was not a fluke,” said Gehring.

Southold’s Class C competition this year will come from Port Jefferson, Pierson/Bridgehampton and Bishop McGann-Mercy.

“I really think that we could actually not only make the playoffs, but could actually get back to the Long Island championship” game, Gehring said. “These girls are working extremely hard and they’re ready to come back and get to the states.”

Because of construction work being done at Southold High School, most, if not all of Southold’s home games are expected to be played in Greenport.

Like Southold, Mattituck (7-10) will play an 18-game regular-season schedule against 18 schools as part of a shakeup in Suffolk softball.

“It’s just going to be a strange year because we’re playing teams we never played before, so we’re going into every game basically blind,” coach Kim Gerstung said. “… We have to be better, basically.”

And the Tuckers look like they are better. They have some big bats in All-County junior third baseman Jaden Thompson (.554, four home runs, 27 RBIs, 21 stolen bases), All-League junior first baseman Ashley Perkins (.373, 16 RBIs) and All-League senior shortstop Ashley Chew (.403, 11 RBIs, nine doubles).

Mattituck received a pleasant surprise when Madison Osler, a senior pitcher who didn’t play last season, returned to the team.

“We have a pitcher again this year,” Gerstung said. “It’s going to be a huge difference. Not only can she pitch and get the ball over the plate, but I don’t have to move people around to get a pitcher.”

Senior catcher Jaime Gaffga, freshman second baseman Aniah Thompson (Jaden’s sister) and junior leftfielder Alexis Burns were starters last year. Others with varsity experience are utility players Cassidy Mullin and Julia Schimpf, and outfielders Jillian Gaffga (Jaime’s sister) and Catherine Thompson. Dominique Crews, a junior centerfielder, is a transfer from Riverhead.

Mattituck has five travel team players, including Jaden Thompson. “She’s very strong,” Gerstung said. “I can put her anywhere on the field. I wish I had nine Jaden Thompsons.”

In addition, Mattituck has a junior varsity team for the first time in five years. Gerstung said, “That’s going to make a huge difference.”

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Photo caption: Southold/Greenport’s All-League pitcher, Ashley Hilary, went 12-4 with a 2.38 ERA last season. She registered 56 strikeouts against six walks. (Credit: Garret Meade, file)