WHEELING-Replacing senior all-state pitcher Alexis Christakis appears to be the main challenge facing the Wheeling Central softball team heading into the 2012 season.
Christakis and Steph Binkoski were the only seniors on the 20-7 squad that finished as the West Virginia Class A state runner-up last spring.
The three-year pitching ace Christakis also earned first-team All-Valley laurels after turning in a 16-3 record with a earned run average of 1.15. She recorded 140 strikeouts during her 102 innings working from the circle.
Center fielder Bri Robbins, a .400 hitter, joins shortstop-pitcher Brittany Miller as the top players on an impressive list of returning seniors, juniors and sophomores. The roster also includes several promising freshmen.
''On paper we look pretty good again, but paper doesn't win a lot of games," Wheeling Central coach Rick Magruder said. ''You have to have luck and avoid a lot of injuries. Last year luck was definitely on our side when we came back to defeat (Weirton) Madonna in a couple of sectional games and we also beat St.Marys 1-0 in the regional.''
Despite their experience, the Maroon Knights have just three seniors on the roster as joining the hard-hitting, solid-fielding Robbins and 2011 first team All-OVAC Class AA honoree Miller is letter-winning outfielder Emily Wizba.
Wizba returns to left field, while flanking Robbins on right side of the outer garden sophomore Joni Zavolta, a second team All-OVAC choice as a freshman.
Miller will lead the pitching rotation, supported by junior Sarah Henry and sophomore Madison Basinger, the latter two also slated to see duty at first base. Sophomore utility player Ellie Padden also could see some relief calls out of the bullpen.
Junior Megan Griffin, sophomore Maria Olson and freshman Cara Stahl are listed at second base, although Stahl is likely to get the nod at shortstop when Miller is pitching. Returning at third base is junior Vanessa Saseen, backed by freshman Sydney Bennington.
Among the other infielders are Padden, sophomore Delaney Denniston and plebes Shelby Main, Katie Bryan and Molly Beavers.
Junior Laken Visnick, a solid performer behind the plate a year ago, returns as the No. 1 catcher, backed by classmate Christine Kineer and sophomore Ashley Gast, who also will get some time at first base. Visnick has a strong arm and handles the pitching staff very well.
Central also has depth in the outfield behind the starting trio of Wizba, Robbins and Zavolta. Others pushing for playing time as outfielders include Padden, Denniston, Stahl, Main, Bryan, Bennington, Olson, junior Emily Gordon, sophomores Alivia Blazier and Nena Denard and Allie Barry.
''Because of our experience, we should be strong defensively," Magruder said.''Hitting? We have the potential but we'll have to wait and see. We are going stress putting the ball in play to put pressure on the defense."
Along with the graduating Christakis and Binkoski, the roster also is minus second baseman-pitcher Taylor Whorton, who transferred to Wheeling Park.
Although the Maroon Knights have high hopes of making it back to Vienna for the state tournament in May, the path certainly won't be easy. Cameron and Weirton Madonna again will have strong teams and Bishop Donahue also appears to be on the upgrade which will make for a strong sectional tournament as usual. In the regional, St. Marys returns most of its players from last year, but will have to battle past familiar rivals Williamstown and Parkersburg Catholic to advance to the regional.
''Again, that is where luck comes in," Magruder said. ''There are a lot of strong teams in Region One and only one of us is going to make it to the state tournament.''
Ambrose Bober, Ed Cihy and Jackie Blake return as varsity assistant coaches along with John Kobala, who will work primarily with the jayvee squad.
WHEELING CENTRAL 2012 SOFTBALL SCHEDULE
Mar. 24: at Union Local 10 a.m.
Mar. 26: at Cameron 5 p.m.
Mar. 27: Magnolia 5 p.m.
Mar. 29: at Bishop Donahue 5 p.m.
Mar. 30: at Weirton Madonna 5 p.m.
Mar. 31: Brooke (2) 5:30 p.m.
Apr. 2: at Oak Glen 5 p.m.
Apr. 3: at Buckeye Local 4:30 p.m.
Apr. 5: Cameron 5 p.m.
Apr. 7: Conotton Valley (2) 10 a.m.
Apr. 9: Oak Glen 5 p.m.
Apr. 10: at Martins Ferry 4:30 p.m.
Apr. 11: Monroe Central 5 p.m.
Apr. 12: at Linsly 5 p.m.
Apr. 13: at Frontier (2) 4 p.m.
Apr.14: Washington (2) 11 a.m.
Apr. 16: Weir 6 p.m.
Apr. 19: Linsly 5 p.m.
Apr. 21: at Shenandoah (2) 11 a.m.
Apr. 23: at Magnolia 5 p.m.
Apr. 24: OVAC Playoffs TBA
Apr. 26: Buckeye Local 4:30 p.m.
Apr. 28: OVAC Playoffs TBA