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Steve Dolezel didn’t need to make any Braveheart-type, rah-rah speeches before his Lorena softball team opened its season this week.

“The girls are pretty motivated,” Dolezel said, chuckling. “They expect more out of themselves than last year.”

That’s what nine months of sitting and stewing over what might have been will do for you. Lorena turned in an equally wonderful and bittersweet season in 2017, reaching the Region III-3A final before seeing its dream of making it to state fall short due to a pair of one-run losses to top-ranked Liberty Hill.

The Lady Leopards graduated only two players from last year’s 27-6 squad – third baseman Jordan Generals and centerfielder Ashley Guyton. While it won’t be easy to replace those Super Centex standouts, plenty of teams would love to have a nucleus of seven returning – and talented – starters that Lorena does.

As always in softball, the center of attention fixates on the circle. And Lorena has a ringleader who can really fling it in senior Rachel Williams, the reigning Super Centex Player of the Year and a Tarleton State signee. Williams racked up all 27 of Lorena’s wins in 2017 while striking out 181 batters, plus chipped in a .340 average and 35 RBIs in the batter’s box.

“I think Rachel expects to take her game to another level,” Dolezel said. “We’ll just have to wait and see a little, because she’s coming out of basketball and will need to get into pitching shape. It might take her two or three weeks to really get her arm into shape.”

Dolezel said he expects pitching and defense to carry his team throughout the season. Nevertheless, Lorena is not lacking in run producers, led by junior shortstop Kaci Donaldson (.381 in district games last year) and senior first baseman Emma Tindell (.365, 31 RBIs). Tindell is a Schreiner University signee.

Last season, the Lady Leopards also benefited from an unusually tight spirit of kinship in the dugout. That camaraderie carried over onto the field, and helped spur the team’s run to the fourth round of the playoffs. It’s something Dolezel knows can’t be faked or conjured out of thin air, but the coach is hopeful that Lorena can replicate a similar sense of unity this year.

“I expect it to happen, but you never know,” said Dolezel, whose team opened with a 16-0 win over Ellison on Tuesday. “Certain situations will develop the camaraderie, so you’ve kind of got to wait and see. The team will bond over certain things, the tournaments, the bus rides, team meals and stuff like that. These girls love to cut up and joke around, but they also know when to be serious.”

In addition to Lorena, here are four other Central Texas teams who figure to be tough to beat in 2018:

The Pantherettes won 27 games and reached the third round of the playoffs in 2017 before being bounced by Plano East. With their top pitcher Jazmine Gendorf and hitter Sophie Wideman back, they’ll be formidable again.

Two-time Super Centex standout Shelby Carter paces a potent Robinson hitting attack that will need a few rookies to step up to replace the departing talent.

Kyla Mach turned in one of the great freshman seasons in Centex history (.653, 11 HRs, 73 RBIs; 14-1 in circle), and she’s hoping for a season of full health for the perennial power Lady Pirates.

The Lady Cougars won the TAPPS Div. III state title in 2017, and are poised for a repeat run behind the arm of junior Maddy Gonzales.

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