For three straight seasons, the Johnston softball team has been one of the top teams in all of Division II, going a combined 39-15 and making the postseason all three years.
The Panthers would like to make it four consecutive years of finishing near the top, but it’s not going to come as easily this time around as it has in years past.
Johnston returns just three starters from a season ago, and only one of them is playing the same position she did last year. The team is also likely starting two freshmen, and has a new head coach leading the way.
There is potential, but it may not translate into instant success right from the start. Johnston opened the regular season on Tuesday with a 12-2 loss to East Greenwich.
“We’re in more of a rebuilding year without great expectations,” first-year head coach Ted Tutalo said. “But, I think we have the talent to surprise some teams if we play the game the right way.”
Tutalo takes over for Dave Iannuccilli, who retired from the job in the off-season after a long run at the helm. Tutalo has served as an assistant coach for the past 10 seasons, so stepping into the head role made perfect sense.
“It was kind of easy for me,” Tutalo said. “I’ve been there so long, I’m just following the model that coach Dave Ianuccilli put in place. I was there almost as long as he was. It was kind of an easy transition for me.”
Making the transition easier is the return of a few consistent performers from last year.
Senior Danielle Gawlik played second base last season, but she’s moved into center field this year. Junior Ariana Caffeso was the team’s third baseman last year, and she’s back in the same spot.
The other returner is junior Amanda Colombo, the team’s starting shortstop a year ago. This season, Colombo will step in as the team’s top pitcher, replacing standout Alaina DeNoncour on the mound.
Colombo does have some experience, as she actually started junior varsity games at pitcher last year to get her ready for this season.
She’s not the power pitcher that DeNoncour was, which means that there will have to be an extra emphasis on defense in order for Johnston to reach its potential.
“Even though Amanda is our starting pitcher, she’s not a power or a strikeout-type pitcher,” Tutalo said. “She’s more of a control pitcher. She’s going to depend on our defense, because most teams will put the ball in play against her. We’re going to have to be good defensively to win ball games.”
Tutalo’s biggest task upon taking over was replacing six starters from last year’s 10-6 team. There are plenty of options, just not a whole lot of experience.
Ready to step in at catcher is junior Lauren Barnes, who has caught for the junior varsity team the last two seasons. At first base, senior Kurstyn McDougal is taking over for her first season as a starter.
Joining Gawlik in the outfield is junior Kelsey Esposito, who will play left, and then a potential platoon in right field of seniors Ashley Peterson and Lindsey Haskins, plus sophomore Alysha Zalewski. Peterson saw some time last season.
In the middle of the infield, Johnston is turning to two freshmen, both of whom have been pleasant surprises.
At shortstop, Alexandra Waters will get the call.
“We knew she was coming up from Ferri Middle School, but she was out of position last year,” Tutalo said. “They needed a pitcher last year, so she was forced to pitch when her natural position is shortstop. We really didn’t know what we had in her.”
At second, Johnston is looking to Helen Hanley.
“Helen was more of a surprise than anything,” Tutalo said. “We’re used to girls coming up from Ferri Middle School, so most of the time we get the word on who’s coming up and who’s played. But she was a big surprise to us in tryouts because she’s been at Mount St. Charles for her middle school. She walked in and no one knew who she was. She’s a good addition to the team.”
Senior Victoria Cioffi could also see some time at second base, but she has been sidelined with a strained patella tendon and there is no real timetable on her return just yet.
Cioffi, along with Gawlik and Colombo are serving as the team’s captains.
So far, even in the early going, Tutalo likes what he sees as a whole. While the defense still has to make some strides, he thinks the offense should be good enough to compete with most teams in the division.
“I think we have a really good baserunning and hitting team,” Tutalo said. “Offensively, we should be good. Defensively, we’re not proven yet, but we’re going to have to be.”
But what it all means, at this point, is still undetermined. With so little experience, Johnston’s hope is that it will get better as the season goes on and hopefully peak in time to get into the playoffs.
Unlike the past three years, with veteran-laden teams, the Panthers will be learning as they go.
“I think, as the season progresses, our goal is to improve every game,” Tutalo said. “If we don’t come out of the box with a good record for the first half of the season, I think – and I really do believe this – that this team is going to jell and improve as the year goes on.”
The Panthers next game will be Tuesday at Exeter/West Greenwich at 3:30 p.m.