When the 2011 softball season began, Preston was looking at replacing two of its top players, lost to graduation a year ago.

Not that it was any big deal, what with the return of one of the top small-school battery combinations in the state, in all-state pitcher Kelcie Bormann and catcher Megan Zeimet. But Trojans coach Sarah Manning was faced with the task of re-arranging her infield, partly because of the graduations of first baseman Korissa Daniels and third baseman Alicia Lane.

Fortunately for the Trojans, some help came from a neighboring school that didn’t field a softball team this past summer.

This summer, the final season of athletic competition for East Central — which starting next year will be whole-grade sharing students with Northeast — four of the would-be Raider softball players decided to dress in Preston’s red and black rather than Northeast’s Columbia blue and white.

And Cassie Aldis, Ryleigh Keeney, Sabrina Lippens and Emily Rittmer are glad they did.

The foursome has helped the Iowa Class 1A No. 4 Trojans to their second straight state softball tournament, which kicks off Monday at Harlan Rogers Park in Fort Dodge. The Trojans (29-6) take on fifth-rated Treynor in a 1:30 p.m. contest. This year’s state trip is Preston’s third in four years.

“It feels amazing,” Aldis, the pint-sized sophomore who plays at second base, said about going to state. “For my first year here it’s a good way to start the year here. I feel like I’ve known the girls here all my life. They’re so amazing to play with, and they’re just such great team players.”

Lippens, a designated player who sometimes sees action in the outfield, said it felt nice to shift from a team (East Central) that has perennially struggled to a team that is accustomed to winning.

“It’s nice to come over here and know what it feels like to get W’s all the time,” the sophomore said. “Coming to a strong team, it’s nice knowing people look up to us.”

Two of Aldis’ long-time teammates on the old East Central team have joined her in the infield — Keeney at first base and Rittmer at third.

Manning said she was happy to have the four ex-East Central players on her squad.

“The girls all get along great,” she said. “I mean, you can say they’re from a different school, but I don’t feel like they are anymore. They’re always hanging out. Even when they don’t have practice they all get along. They really are an asset to our team. They hit the ball well, and three of our infielders are from there.”

Bormann, the 100-win pitcher who struck out 20 in the 2-0 Class 1A regional final win over Janesville on Wednesday, said her new teammates had helped the team in many ways. One example: Aldis, Keeney and Rittmer will help Trojans mainstay Lizzie Meier cover an opponent’s bunt.

“Without them, we wouldn’t have gotten as far as we did,” said Bormann, a senior who was backed on the mound by Aldis. “They’re amazing all-around players. Without them, we wouldn’t know who would play where (because of the graduations of Daniels and Lane). We have a very solid defense with them out there.”

Zeimet added: “They’re great. They’re hard workers, and they just do a great job in the infield. They’re easy to get along with.”

Rittmer said she had enjoyed being a part of the Preston team this summer.

“We didn’t go this far last year at East Central and being a Trojan, it’s awesome,” she said. “The girls, they’re all really nice and they’re all really supportive as a newcomer. They’re like your sisters. We’re all just really close.”

Keeney added: “Because Kelcie works so hard at what she does, we just back her up and make all the plays I can because she needs all the help.”

There has been marked improvement in other ways, too, among the Preston newcomers. Aldis, a first-team All-Big East selection this summer, batted .276 a year ago and now has her team’s second-highest average at .385. Rittmer, who had a key insurance run-RBI against Janesville, is fifth on the Trojans batting-average list at .314.

Though still well under .300 with her .211 average, Lippens’ batting luck has improved nearly 10 percent this summer. Aldis, Rittmer and Keeney have combined for a 90-percent fielding average (170 putouts vs. 19 errors), while pitching-wise, Aldis (2-2) has an ERA of 2.73 with eight walks and 22 strikeouts in 33 1⁄3 innings.

“It’s good to have a team that I know they always have my back and they’ll never doubt me for a second if I’ll get this batter out or not,” Aldis said of her pitching. On playing defense, she added: “I’ve been just trying to get the feel of things, and I’ve been backing up the people I’ve needed to. Like Kelcie, I’ve got her back. I cover first on a bunt so it’s just like, shift with the team.”

Bormann said she was glad to have not only new teammates with the former East Central players, but new friends as well.

“I’m so happy we’ve had them, and we’re all friends now,” she said. “Before they were just acquaintances, like you knew them, you were nice to them. Now it’s just, we’re real close.”

Though they are residents of the East Central School District, where most junior high and high school students will be going to Northeast starting this fall, at least Aldis, Keeney, Lippens and Rittmer have decided their future is at Preston.

For them, the choice was easy.

“It’s just kind of where I felt I needed to belong, and it’s where I’ve felt most at-home at,” Aldis said.

Keeney said: “I just feel welcomed there. I know most of the girls.”

“I like all the people from Preston … and they treat me nicely,” Lippens chimed in. “It just adds on to the reasons I want to go to Preston.”

 

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