WELLSTON — The Wellston High School softball team is used to blasting off into new stratospheres.
The senior-laden Lady Rockets of 2008 are ready to reach the next one.
Spearheaded by eight seniors, and a multitude of returning experience, the reigning Tri-Valley Conference Ohio Division champions are aiming for another strong season.
And, a place where no Lady Rocket team has been in three full decades: the regional tournament.
With six returning seniors, all of which are three-or-four-year starters, the Lady Rockets are ready to repeat as TVC-Ohio and Division III sectional champions.
Plus, they are ready for a run at the regionals.
In an interview on Monday, Wellston head coach Rick Perdue made it quite clear what the club’s goals are this spring.
“We want to take that next step and win the district,” said Perdue, the reigning TVC-Ohio Coach of the Year who enters his 10th season as the Lady Rocket skipper. “Our goals are always to win our league and win our sectional, but this year, we’re shooting for the regional as well. These seniors don’t want their season to end any earlier. We’ve lost some real close ones in the district, especially with this group, so we hope this is the year we finally get over that next hump.”
In five of Perdue’s first nine seasons, the Lady Rockets have advanced to the district tournament, but Wellston’s only other regional berth came clear back in 1979.
Last season, Wellston set a school record for wins with 21 against only four losses.
The Blue and Gold garnered a perfect 10-0 league tally, and earned their second straight TVC-Ohio Division championship.
The Rockets also captured their second straight sectional title before bowing out in the first round of the Division III district.
“Last season was a fun season,” said Perdue. “I don’t have very many freshmen that have ever come through here and started all four years. Last year, we had three seniors who had started since they were freshmen and three juniors who had started since they were freshmen. It was fun to see all of their experience come to fruition. I’m just real pleased that it worked out the way it did. We got very good pitching from Erin (Sturgill) last year and we played very good defense behind her.”
But that was then, and this is now, and Perdue is quick to admit that the three senior starters will be difficult to replace.
“We have some tough spots to fill this year because of what those seniors did last year,” said Perdue.
Those graduates include catcher Peggy Fleming, second baseman Mikyla Perkins and third baseman Becky Perkins. A fourth senior — Kait Kirkendall — was a reserve utility player.
Fleming and Becky Perkins were among five Lady Rockets which landed all-TVC-Ohio honors. In addition, Fleming and Mikyla Perkins made Division III all-Southeast District.
“We’ve got some kids that I think are very capable of filling those spots, but it’s going to take a while to adjust,” said Perdue.
However, the Rockets return a strong nucleus, starting in the pitcher’s circle with senior ace Erin Sturgill.
Sturgill, the two-time TVC-Ohio Defensive MVP, is a three-time all-league selection. A four-year starting hurler, she also earned all-Ohio Honorable Mention honors last season.
Sturgill pitched in 22 of the Lady Rockets’ 25 games, posting an 18-4 record with only 23 walks and 111 strikeouts. She also tossed five shutouts, part of 19 complete games overall.
Her earned run average was a microscopic 1.76. She also recorded a team-high 54 defensive assists.
“Erin is not a pitcher that is going to strike out 12 or 13 people each time, but she is very consistent and just keeps getting better,” said Perdue.
Offensively, Sturgill batted .386 with a team-high on-base percentage of .477. She was first on the team in runs batted in (26), second in runs scored (29) and third in total hits (27).
But, senior shortstop Amber Lambert was voted the TVC-Ohio Offensive MVP.
Batting .364 with an on-base percentage of .462, Lambert was the leadoff hitter and scored 33 runs in addition to 28 hits.
Only Fleming with a .400 batting average and 30 total hits were better.
The four-year starter Lambert, with 34 assists and 34 putouts last season, anchors the defense while another Amber — fellow senior Amber King — returns at first base.
King is also the backup pitcher, and threw three complete-game victories last season for the Rockets. She tossed 21 of the team’s 160 innings played.
At the other corner is senior Charity Exline, replacing Becky Perkins at third. Exline was the left fielder last season, but Perdue said she is a “natural third baseman.”
Sophomore Breanna Hall, replacing Fleming, will catch her cousin Sturgill.
Perdue said he is “experimenting” at second, which Mikyla Perkins manned for four seasons.
“That’s been a headache trying to find somebody who can step in there,” said the coach of the second base quandary. “We’re looking at two or three different players who might fill in at that position. I love to coach defense, and we look to be pretty solid there, but it’s just that second base is so critical.”
Senior Paige Patterson, a three-year starter, is back in centerfield.
Fellow senior Stephanie Trainer, when not playing second base, will likely return to right field, where she made all-league.
Sophomore Chelsie Folden will start in the outfield as well, as senior Holly Waldron returns to the Rockets after two seasons at Lemon-Monroe.
Kelisha Wheatley, the eighth and final senior, will replace Kirkendall as the team’s utility player. Sophomore Ciara Thompson rounds out the Lady Rocket roster.
While Perdue said his Rockets rely primarily on pitching and defense, he said his squad can hit the ball as well.
“I’d say the majority of our batters really hit better against better pitching,” he said. “I think our hitting right now is as strong as its ever been this early in the season. These girls can crank the ball.”
The Lady Rockets have also cranked up the schedule this season.
In addition to the TVC-Ohio slate, Wellston will travel to Symmes Valley next weekend for three tilts in the annual Thunder in The Valley Tournament.
Wellston will play South Point twice, whom it edged 1-0 to win last year’s sectional final.
The Lady Rockets also have games against Green, Unioto, Trimble, Symmes Valley, Scioto Northwest and Portsmouth Clay.
Clay advanced to the Division IV state tournament last season. Northwest and Unioto, meanwhile, have ended Wellston’s last two seasons in the district semifinals.
Against the Southeastern Ohio Athletic League, which consists of primarily Division II schools, the Rockets face Jackson twice along with Athens, Marietta and Chillicothe once.
“This is the most ambitious schedule that we’ve ever had,” said Perdue. “I counted eight teams on our schedule that are either Division I or Division II teams. It’s a good schedule for us, but that’s the way I feel like we will get ready for the tournament. We’ve got to play a schedule like that if we’re going to compete at the district level. We’ve got some teams that we probably should beat, but we don’t have many babycakes on our schedule this year. We’re going to have to be up every game.”
Indeed, if the Lady Rockets intend to blast off into their next stratosphere.
Wellston opens its season on Monday when it welcomes Waterford. First pitch is set for 5 p.m.
In their quest for the program’s return to the regional tournament, the Lady Rockets are also working on a repeat three-peat.
Wellston is in search of its second third-straight season as a Division III sectional champion in the Perdue era.
The Lady Rockets also won three consecutive crowns from 2000 to 2002.