— With limited offensive pop, Warhill often needed to manufacture runs last season to win its Group 3A softball title behind star pitcher Keely Rochard and a stout defense.
The Lions (24-0) essentially lost their entire outfield and three of their best baserunners from last season, but have become an even more dangerous team this season largely due to an improved offensive attack that includes mega-talented freshman Taylor Nicholson in the leadoff spot.
Rochard is a year wiser on the mound after earning state player of the year honors last season. The Virginia Tech recruit is joined in her class by four other senior starters: third baseman Kieran McClure, catcher Jasmine Ortiz, second baseman Lindsey Davis, and first baseman Emma Harris.
Rochard, McClure, Ortiz, and Davis each lost to Brookville in the state semifinals as sophomores before avenging the loss against the Lynchburg school in last year's final in what could have been labeled as a slight upset.
This year is different. Warhill is the favorite and the unbeaten Lions expect to win, starting with Friday's 4 p.m. semifinal against Patrick County at Salem's Moyer Complex. The winner will get either Brookville or York at 1 p.m. Saturday in the championship.
"They expect to win and more than anything, that's built around Keely," Warhill coach Tom Bunn said. "But all of these kids have had big moments and big plays. Not that they're going to win every game, but they expect to."
Rochard has been sensational, allowing only four earned runs all season. Her pitch location and movement have improved and the occasional misses last season to allow home runs have fallen off the charts.
The Lions are scoring about 2.5 more runs per game than last year and have outscored their four playoff opponents by a combined 28-0.
Rochard helps in the batting department, too, currently hitting .349 with five home runs and a team-best 38 RBIs.
"It's just nice to know we can get more than one or two runs across the plate to help the defense out, too," Rochard said.
Two runs were enough in a shutout of Brookville in the final last season.
And then Warhill lost key players Makayla Fannin, Jewel Walters and Hayley Schulz to graduation.
Could the Lions compensate for that loss of speed and talent?
"But then we added Barry Bonds to the top of the order," Bunn said.
That would be Nicholson (.520, 11 home runs, 33 RBIs), the shortstop who is probably deserving of state player of the year consideration, although that honor usually goes to the top pitcher.
Warhill's path back to the state semifinals included a grueling test Thursday and Friday in the 3A East Region playoffs that included a 6-0 win three hours away at Skyline before a 5-0 victory at York as the Bay Rivers District rivals clashed a third time this season.
Nicholson crushed a leadoff home run on the second pitch against Skyline. She also led off with a round-tripper against Southampton to open postseason play after Rochard struck out the order to start the home game.
It was only 1-0 but as Bunn said, it must have felt like 10-0. "I have to think it sends a statement," he said. "It's not like they stopped fighting or whatever. But you have to be thinking, 'Oh, brother.'"
Last year's outfielders were ultimately replaced by freshmen Daja Wallace in left and Kaylee Giles in right, and standout junior Olivia Schulz (.438, 2 home runs, 18 RBIs) in center.
The infield is stocked with a tight-knit group of seniors including third baseman McClure, the team's second-leading hitter with a .481 average.
It must not have been easy to start the season with rumblings from outside observers of another Brookville-Warhill meeting in the state tournament being in the cards. The Bees still have star pitcher Jordan Dail, also a Hokies recruit along with a catcher headed to the University of North Carolina.
Bunn tells his team to focus on the little things, on executing, and everything else will fall in line.
"Coach Bunn always tells us that it's not always the better lineup that wins the game," McClure said. "You have to go out and prove it to yourself."
Knowing before the season that his team would have to go on the road in the regionals, Bunn scheduled road games at 5A powerhouse Atlee and private school heavyweight Greenbrier Christian Academy. The Lions beat Greenbrier 7-0 before their toughest test of the season, a 1-0 win over the reigning 5A champion in Mechanicsville.
Rochard wondered whether Bunn goes home and questions every move he makes during a game and said after losses last year that Bunn sought ways to improve as a coach, rather than dissect his team.
It was all in an effort to make sure the players in light blue are the ones raising the trophy at the end of the season.
"It's not necessarily all, all about winning," Ortiz said, "but most of it."
Holtzman can be reached by phone at 757-298-5830.