The scholastic softball season is underway and it promises to be an interesting one for Lebanon County teams

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The scholastic softball season in Lebanon County is not only upon us, it's underway and rolling, thanks to mostly pleasant early spring weather conditions.

So there's no time to waste as we take a look at what to expect on local diamonds this spring. Here then, are five things to watch as we make our way through the 2016 campaign. Best of luck to all.

Annville-Cleona's title defense

Led by senior mound ace Emma Lerchen, Annville-Cleona outlasted perennial rival Pequea Valley for the Lancaster-Lebanon Section Four title a season ago, and has to be considered the favorite to claim the crown again.

With Lerchen joined by a deep and experienced lineup that includes senior center fielder Hannah Fischer and speedy junior shortstop Morgan Zimmerman, the Little Dutchmen also look to be the county's best team, although time will tell on that.

At any rate, perennial contender A-C figures to be playing plenty of meaningful late-season games once again this spring, so keep an eye on its progress as the season goes on.

Battery powers Cedar Crest

Cedar Crest has slipped a bit from its usual status as an L-L:Section One contender in recent years, but the Falcons are nonetheless blessed with the county's top pitcher-catcher duo in pitcher Maddie Gable and catcher Emma Spang.

The senior battery has been together for several years now, and will be the catalysts for the Falcons' quest to regain relevance in Section One.

And they're not only important on the mound and behind the plate. Spang and Gable also hold down the No.3 and 4 spots in the Cedar Crest batting order.

Can Northern Lebanon take the next step?

Over the winter months, the Northern Lebanon girls basketball team shed its status as a perennial also-ran and put together its best season in school history, one that culminated with a trip to the quarterfinals of the Class AAA state playoffs.

It's not realistic to expect NL's softball team to do the same, but the Vikings are hoping some of that mojo from basketball season makes its way onto the softball diamond this spring.

Led by pitcher Jess Kreiser and shortstop Katie Hossler, Northern Lebanon is hoping to challenge perennial Section Three powers Donegal and Lampeter-Strasburg as the season goes on. It's a daunting task, for sure, but one the Vikings seem eager to undertake.

New bosses at Elco, Palmyra

Each new season seems to bring about a head coaching change at one school or another, and this year two county teams will be guided by new coaches.

At Elco, longtime assistant Randy Derr has taken over the reigns after the retirement of Dennis Morgan, while at Palmyra Tod Whitman steps into the job after a tumultuous 2015 season that led to the ouster of previous head coach Kathy Wicker.

Best of luck to Derr and Whitman as they look to put their stamp on the programs at Elco and Palmyra.

More than a game

Speaking of Whitman, he's gone to great and impressive lengths to instill positive vibes into his new team via a variety of game-day features during home contests.

Among them: The playing of the national anthem, use of a PA announcer and playing music between innings. But the most noteworthy addition is a pregame ceremony in which Palmyra seniors honor and thank a teacher who has positively impacted them off the softball diamond.

They're not the kind of things that will make the Cougars throw harder, hit the ball farther or run faster, but they will provide the type of environment that kids and their friends and families will want to be a part of, which is an important and underrated part of building a successful program.

What follows is a closer look at the seven Lebanon County scholastic softball teams, via capsule previews:

Annville-Cleona

Coach: Dave Bentz, 11th year

Last year's record: 16-7, Lancaster-Lebanon Section Four champs

Key players lost: Veronica Wampler (2B), Mindy Reigle (RF), Christy Snyder (3B)

Top returning players: Emma Lerchen (P) Sr., Hannah Fischer (CF) Sr., Amber Rexrode (C) Jr., Morgan Zimmerman (SS) Jr., Sarah Fischer (2B) Jr., Cayla Gassert (RF) Jr., Michaela Singer (LF) Jr.,

Promising newcomers: Lauren Schrader (1B) Fr., Alex Carpenter (3B) Soph., Alyssa Blackman (3B) Jr., Alyssa Binkley (3B) Fr., Amanda Rine (1B) Sr., Abbie Jakob (OF) Sr., Kelsey Snyder (OF) Sr., Zoee Garis (OF) Jr., Hali Rhoads (OF) Sr.

Outlook: With ace pitcher Lerchen back in the fold, and a potent lineup led by Hannah Fischer and the speedy Zimmerman backing her up, A-C figures to be tough to knock off its Section Four title perch and may sprinkle in some postseason success.

It's a group the fiery Bentz is high on, and one that also welcomes some young talent into the fold in freshmen Schrader and Binkley.

"I have a nice team," Bentz said. "This is a good bunch, I'm really excited about these guys. I've got a good, solid senior pitcher and we've got nice hitters, one through nine. We'll see what happens."

Cedar Crest

Coach: Eric Edwards, 3rd year

Last year's record: 7-13

Key players lost:  Molly Finley (SS), Janell Daullary (OF), Erin Seldomridge (INF)

Top returning players: Emma Spang (C ) Sr., Maddie Gable (P) Sr., Ashley Maulfair (IB), Jenna Sloss (INF-OF), Anna DeBellis (3B)

Promising newcomers: Desiree Mancill (OF), Bailey Perry-McClintic (P-SS), Amber LaGrelius (OF)

Outlook: The Falcons have struggled the last few years, but with ace pitcher Gable and No. 3 hitter and  battery mate Spang back to mesh with a crop of promising youngsters, Edwards is hopeful that some improvement will occur this time around.

"We are excited about our team this year," he said. "We return several starters this year that received valuable game experience last season.  We will be more competitive this season as long as we stay healthy and play the way we are capable."

Elco

Coach: Randy Derr, 1st year

Last year's record: 9-11

Key players lost: Claire Shaak (P), Beth Hess (C) Veronica Reinhart (OF), Courtney Hogeland (OF) Maddie Drescher (3B)

Top returning players: Sara Bentz (1B) Sr., Beth Wiczalkowski (INF-OF) Sr.,  Sarah Yermalovich (P-SS) Soph., Amaya Phillips (P-3B) Soph.

Promising newcomers: Casey Boyer (2B) Soph., Maggie Bollinger (C) Jr., Karisa Miller (OF) Soph., Courtney Henry (INF-OF) Soph. Hannah Richards (OF) Jr., Maddie Nolt (OF) Soph.

Outlook: First-year head coach Derr inherits a club that lost an indispensable pitcher in Shaak and a big bat in Reinhart. But the Raiders' new boss is still encouraged by what he sees so far.

"Being as young as we are I am hoping to see improvement after each practice or game," Derr said. "I told the kids we need to win the games we are supposed to win and steal a few we are not.  We need to do the fundamental things correctly, make the routine plays and we will be fine.

"I have a great group of hard-working players who want to improve. It is up to them how far we go this season, but with their work ethic I am looking for a great season."

Lebanon

Coach: Bob Norman, 2nd year

Last year's record: 1-19

Key players lost: Kaitlin Kissinger, Marissa Trokie, Mariah Rodriguez

Top returning players: Ashley Kropf (OF,) Sr., Lyd Haddock (OF) Sr., Katey Roth (P-OF) Jr., Brooke Wagner (C) Jr., Jackie Checo (2B) Jr.,

Promising newcomers: Maggie Hinkel (3B) Soph., Kayla Conlow (1B) Soph.,Aurianis Lassalle Rivera, Fr.

Outlook: The Cedars managed just one win a season ago, but Norman is hopeful that the returning leadership and positive team vibes will lead to more tangible success for the perennially struggling program.

"The chemistry of this team is very good," Norman said.  "We have good leadership from our seniors and this will help with the development of the team.  We will look to build on the small successes of last year.  We have a good mix of experience and new players that are excited to compete.  The success of the team will depend on how well we play defense behind our pitchers.  The team has worked very hard during the off season on becoming better bunters, as we will depend on the small ball to be more effective on the offensive end."

Lebanon Catholic

Coach: Kerry Long, 11th year

Last year's record: 0-12

Key players lost: None

Top returning players: Allie Warren (SS) Sr., Hannah Callihan (P) Soph., Faith Kostow (CF) Soph., Alex Cepada (C) Jr., Mitchell Cepada (3B) Jr.

Promising newcomers: Mary Harding (LF) Soph., McKenna Purcell (1B) Fr., Arianna Clay (Utility) Fr.

Outlook: It will be a struggle again this season on Assumption Hill, as the Beavers simply try to keep the program alive with just 11 players, only a few of which have significant softball experience.

"We're still a work in progress," Long said. "I'm still teaching, just trying to keep the program alive. But I have great kids. The character of the kids keeps me coming back. They want to learn."

Northern Lebanon

Coach: Dale Kreiser and Andy Bender, 4th year

Last year's record: 10-10 overall, 9-7 in Section Three

Key players lost: Cortney Hostetter (C) Erica Dulac (3B), Molly Mount (OF)

Top returning players: Jessica Kreiser (P/OF) Sr., Katelyn Hossler (SS) Sr.; Nicole Ditzler (1B/P) Sr.; Richelle Kreiser (2B) Sr.; Kaley Donmoyer (OF) Sr.

Promising newcomers:  Melanie Showers (OF/P) Soph.,  Taylor Shollenberger (3B) Jr.,; Haley Fegley (OF/P) Soph.; Kaylee Mauser (C) Soph.; Sydney Mengel (OF/C) Fr.

Outlook: The Vikings turned in a solid, if unspectacular 2015 campaign, and with some promising youngsters added to the mix are looking to take the next step in a section typically dominated by perennial powers Donegal and Lampeter-Strasburg.

"NL looks to improve on last year’s 9-7 Section 3 record by welcoming some talented underclassmen who will make an immediate impact defensively and with speed on the bases," Bender said in an e-mail. "Senior pitchers Jessica Kreiser and Nicole Ditzler will anchor the pitching staff and provide leadership on and off the field, while defensively seniors Katelyn Hossler, Richelle Kreiser, and Kaley Donmoyer anchor the middle positions. The Vikings are seeking to challenge perennial Section 3 powers Donegal and Lampeter-Strasburg for a shot at the L-L League playoffs."

Palmyra

Coach: Tod Whitman, 1st year

Last year's record: 9-9

Key players lost: Rebekah Sell (OF), Catherine Wicker (P), Hannah Phillippy (2B)

Top returning players: Kayla Bonawitz (SS), Kailey Werkheiser (C), Bri Long (3B), Rebecca Randall, Payge Coburn, Meagan Quigley

Promising newcomers: Sara Boyer, Abbey Krahling, Molly Nelson, Shayla Myers, Mikayla Bomgardner

Outlook: Whitman takes over the reigns of the program after a tumultuous 2015 season that led to the ouster of previous head coach Kathy Wicker, and is looking to inject a new, positive attitude.

"(We have) a good mix of experience and talented youth," Whitman said. "Important pieces need to be replaced and youth must adapt quickly. But, expect us to compete near the top of our division if the players get comfortable with the new system and culture. If this team stumbles early, don't count them out. Once they buy in, they will be able to compete with anyone in the conference. OK, OK, Lower Dauphin is still the most talented team in the conference, player-for-player. But this game requires more than that. And I'm confident we can compete by doing our little things right."

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