GLADSTONE - Veteran manager Gerry Smith says he has never had a team like this before.
The 2012 Gladstone Braves were senior dominated, so naturally there is much turnover to be found this season, on a team that has been to the Final Four in each of the last five seasons.
"It's wide open," Smith said of the competition for spots. This weekend will mark the first time the Braves longtime manager has entered the the season without having a completed lineup. He says there are some positions he is more sure of than others, but that the evaluation process has been slow.
"Right now, the depth looks pretty good. We're going to be young and it looks like it will be a slow process throughout the year, but I think by June we should be ready to go," Smith said.
The competition is so close right now that Smith declined to allude to who was making an early impact. However, one thing the Braves can be sure about is dual ace pitchers Alison Austin and Christine Sharon. The two senior control pitchers offered a formidable one-two punch for the Braves during their march to the Division III state title game last season.
"I hope that's going to build a lot of character with the other kids, give them two great pitchers to follow," said Smith. Also returning is senior catcher Ashley Berthaume.
March 29-30 - Spring Swing Tournament at Marquette.
April 13 - at Pinconning Invitational; April 23 - at Marquette; April 26 -Peshtigo; April 30 - Marquette.
May 2 - Sault Ste. Marie; May 7 - at Rapid River; May 9 - at Negaunee; May 11 - at Petoskey Tournament; May 14 - at Escanaba; May 17 - at Sault Ste. Marie; May 18 - at Tawas Invitational; May 21 - Escanaba.
"Between the three of them, we should be alright," said Smith. "Sharon and Austin are both coming on strong, they're both stronger than they were last year and I'm hoping they do great this year."
However a lot of what Austin and Sharon were able to do last season was complemented by sterling fielding from experienced players in the infield. Rebuilding that strong infield will likely be a key to success for Gladstone this season.
But for a team that has built a tradition of success, Smith feels it's nothing that can't be accomplished and so the pundits apparently feel the same - Gladstone was ranked No. 2 in the Division III preseason softball rankings.
"Our goal is to get the final four. That's our goal every year," Smith said. "I really think with good hard practice and dedication, that will get there."
It won't be any easier however. Area rivals such as Rapid River and Escanaba remain strong and teams such as Marquette and Negaunee always pose significant threats.
"Escanaba has quite a few returning, and they were good last year too," said Smith. "They didn't go too far in the playoffs, but once you get there, it takes a lot of luck too. You have to get the breaks at the right time, get the key hits at the right time and sometimes it comes, sometimes it doesn't. But I look for Escanaba to be real strong this year."
The Braves will get their first stab at the Eskymos this weekend as they open the season Friday at the 10th Annual Marquette Spring Swing Tournament at the Superior Dome. The Braves will play three games over two days, but Smith says he uses the preseason tournament mainly as an evaluation tool, especially because Gladstone will be shorthanded with athletes on spring break.
"I just look at everybody that is there and see where they fit in the program," he said. "We only have four varsity players that are here right now and all the rest are on spring vacation. Sharon will be available but she won't be pitching to due a muscle problem in one arm, so I'll have two freshman and a sophomore. That will give them a chance to get their feet wet. (With the experienced players) You don't really have to look, but you do look for weaknesses and where the strengths are at this time. And I'll also get a pretty good look at some of the young ones."
An early game on April 2 at Green Bay has already been cancelled due to the field not being thawed in time.
When the season does eventually kick into gear, Smith will be as optimistic as ever, even in the face of uncertainty.
"I think we have a great compliment of kids to work with and I hope it will be great year for us," he said.