The Tooele softball team comes into the 2017 season with a lot of new faces in new places, including first-year coach Marissa Lowry.
However, the Buffaloes also come in with the same expectations as always — competing for a state championship.
Tooele got its season under way with a 13-12 loss at Lehi in eight innings Tuesday, though there were plenty of positive signs for a team that hadn’t so much as practiced outside up to that point.
“We’ve got a solid group,” Lowry said. “They work hard day in and day out, and I’m proud of them. Big things are going to come if we continue to put in the little things at practice.”
The Buffs (0-1) will look to seniors Kamryn Grover and Trista Fackrell to provide leadership. A third senior, Loryn Fonger, is with the team, but will miss the season after an offseason injury left her right arm in a sling. They were encouraged by what they saw on Tuesday, and said the team’s close-knit nature will pay off.
“We have each other’s backs on the field, so we know if someone makes an error, somebody’s going to be there to pick you up,” said Grover, the team’s top pitcher.
Other key returners from last season include juniors Payton Hammond, Blake Hervat, Mercy Deryke and Emma Jackson, along with sophomores Amber Lujan and Jenna Gowans. Katie Higley, Shaylie Davis and Makenna Baker also return from last season’s varsity roster.
“I’m feeling pretty good — pretty confident,” said Fackrell, the Buffs’ third baseman. “We lost [to Lehi], but this was our first time even being on the dirt. I feel like we’ve got better team chemistry this year.”
Tooele is coming off a third-place finish in last season’s Class 3A state tournament, where the Buffs were eliminated by Juab one game short of the state championship game. That taste of success has the Buffaloes hungry for more.
“If we continue to put in the work, good things could happen,” Lowry said. “We have a strong offensive lineup and our bench is very strong, too. We have dominant pitching in the circle — [Grover’s] been a starter for us for four years. We have some underclassmen who can step up if we need them.”
A bit of rust was evident in Tuesday’s season opener, which saw the Buffs race out to a 7-0 lead that included home runs by Gowans, Jackson and Grover. Hammond added a two-run single in the top of the sixth inning that padded Tooele’s advantage, but Lehi (1-0) came storming back with 11 runs in the bottom of the frame to take the lead. The Pioneers’ surge included a grand slam by Bailey Tahbo and a two-run home run by Alli Butterfield off relief pitcher Sydney Turnbow.
However, Tooele answered with four runs in the top of the seventh to tie the game, sparked by Fackrell’s two-run double. Fackrell later scored on a wild pitch, and Deryke drove in pinch-runner Rylee Anderson with an RBI single to left for the game-tying run.
“I’m excited for this season — I’m excited to see what happens,” Fackrell said.
After Grover retired the Pioneers in order in the bottom of the seventh, Gowans drove in Sara Ujhelhy with the go-ahead run in the international tiebreaker to give Tooele a 12-11 advantage. The Buffs couldn’t get another run across in the inning, stranding runners at second and third base, and a pair of errors with two outs in the bottom of the eighth allowed Lehi to tie the game and eventually win it.
Tooele wasn’t discouraged by the result, however, especially not in a non-region game against one of Class 5A’s premier programs.
“This is going to be our season,” Grover said.