‘Canes facing challenge to pull off repeat

Joey Payeur

It’s in with the old and the new for the Fort Frances Her-icanes.
And, no, those descriptions have nothing to do with the age of anyone on the roster.
The ‘Canes start their mission to defend their Rainy River District Women’s Fastball League crown Monday against their victims in last year’s final, the Red Gut Babes.
Game time is 6:30 p.m. at VanJura.
“I think it’s always harder to defend a championship,” said captain and league president Stacy Patey.
“Our girls work hard, we practice hard and play hard,” she noted.
“We don’t take any team for granted because everybody plays to win.”
Getting those wins will require some extra effort this season due to two major departures.
Ace pitcher Tracy Morningstar, who flummoxed many an opposition batter last season after coming over from Red Gut, joins her third team in three seasons with her move to the Manitou T-Birdies.
It’s an instant and significant upgrade to the lineup for the T-Birdies, the league’s only winless team last year (0-16), with Morningstar having led the league in pitching victories (11) while batting well over .400.
Manitou will benefit from Morningstar’s potent bat providing protection in the batting order for last year’s co-home run champ, Summer Leonard, who bashed six dingers to tie Shae Smith of the Northwest Bay Beavers.
The T-Birdies also will benefit from the folding of the Big Island Wildcats that now has left the RRDWFL as an 11-team circuit.
All-star second baseman Roxanne Handorgan and Big Island’s top starter in Candace Handorgan, along with a third player unidentified at press time (possibly all-star Tina Jack), further will bolster Manitou’s lineup.
With Morningstar moving on, former No. 1 starter Laureen Hill reclaims the ace role for the ‘Canes that she held in 2014, when she led the squad to the final.
Meanwhile, last season’s rookie sensation at shortstop, Jess Woodgate, also is unavailable for the ‘Canes this year.
The two gaping holes left behind will be filled by two familiar faces and one new one.
Norma Raether and Kristina “Hollywood” Bombay are back in the fold for the ‘Canes while Sarah Noonan brings a winning pedigree with her from the local adult mixed slo-pitch league.
The ‘Canes still bring plenty of pop to the plate, with Patey, Hill, Dana Ward, and Caylee Woolsey all capable power threats.
Red Gut has been in every final since the RRDWFL was resurrected in 2013, but is stuck in a two-year championship dry spell after winning back-to-back titles in 2013-14.
Alyssa Windego looks to repeat her success of her first go-round at pitching last year (8-6).
Veteran fireballer Lynn Windego is expected to be around more regularly this season, although the Dryden import was less than her normal intimidating presence in last year’s final against the ‘Canes due to lingering health issues.
Catcher and team captain Kayla Windego serves up the thunder at the plate while fleet-footed centre-fielder and team stolen base leader Taylor Windego terrorizes opponents at the top of the lineup.
There also will be some fresh faces on the Babes’ roster as rookies Samara Jones and Ziggy Skead enter the league to join promising second-year player Kendra Calder.
Last year’s lone expansion team in the RRDWFL also was its surprise team.
The Emo Renegades converted a sub-.500 regular season into a stirring playoff run–knocking out the defending champion Northwest Bay Beavers before running into the ‘Canes in the ‘B’-side final to wind up third overall.
But Emo will have a mound void of its own to fill as rocket-armed hurler Karma Andy won’t be around this season after joining the team in mid-season and carrying them through the playoffs.
Mykenzie Borger, who put in a respectable rookie campaign with a 4-5 mark, likely will return to the ace role for the Renegades.
Emo’s offence will feature some dangerous contributors, such as all-star first baseman Laurie Brown, the speedy tandem of third baseman Jannelle Andy and catcher Morningstar Tom, and big-hitting shortstop Erin Oltsher.
Northwest Bay, meanwhile, will return its usual skilled five-star family of Smiths.
Darcy Smith remains the engine that drives the Beavers, second only to Morningstar last year in pitching wins (10) while also pounding the ball from the cleanup spot to complement the long-ball ability of Shae Smith and Trish Smith.
The Fort Frances Mud Dogs were second in the regular-season standings at 12-4, and transitioned smoothly from 2015 all-star hurler Erika “Fireball” Paulsen to steady right-hander Rachelle Yeo after the former’s mid-season move to southern Ontario.
Yeo came out from behind the plate to garner her own all-star nod thanks to a 6-4 record on the mound and a team-leading three round-trippers.
Paulsen perhaps was missed more come playoff time for her offensive contributions as the Mud Dogs had trouble scoring runs and were ousted early by the upstart Dawson Tigers.
With Yeo and stalwarts like catcher Megan Reid, third baseman Jodie Hood and shortstop Shelby Tymkin on hand, the Mud Dogs once again should give their foes all they can handle.
The Big Grassy Lynx and Couchiching Lady Raiders each had identical 11-5 regular-season records last year, but may be hard-pressed to match those efforts this year due to possible pitching questions.
Lynx right-handed flamethrower Nancy Indian is out of action until at least the second half of the season as she is expecting her first child.
But Micaela Jack, two seasons removed from a 10-win season on the mound for the ‘Canes, opted to join Big Grassy and brings some legitimate mound tools and a potentially charged-up bat to the Lynx.
The rest of Big Grassy’s hopes rest on the bats of Lynn Indian and Shayna Copenace, with Patricia Green also poised to be a consistent run producer.
As for Couchiching, Sydney Jones (third in the league in pitching wins last season with nine) only will be available every second week due to work obligations.
On the other weeks, the Lady Raiders will scramble for a replacement, with starting shortstop Stephanie Racine and catcher Courtney Easton the only other players to see some pitching duties last season.
Should Couchiching solve that major issue, a loaded offence can cure any other woes as Easton, league stolen base champ Racine, Jen Singleton (another pitching candidate), and Katie Mowe wield plenty of ability at the plate.
Shannon Stone’s five homers fuelled Dawson’s offence last year, with Laurie Fairfield, Meghan Bourgeois, and Candy Teeple also providing punch at the dish.
That complemented the pinpoint pitching of No. 1 starter Alicia Anderson (7-2 last season) and rising prospect Kendra Moen.
Sabaskong Tebinaak is led on the mound by the effective duo of Candy and Devyn Kelly while Ashley Kelly cranked two homers last year to pace the offence.
Finally, the Fort Frances Angels will look to regroup after a 12-game losing streak to end their regular-season before two more playoff losses.
Rylee Redford, the team’s best hitter and winning pitcher in their only two victories last year while also being an all-star catcher, gives the Angels a fighting chance to improve on last season.
She will be assisted on the mound by promising Sara Jackson.
Additional offence will be looked for from veterans such as Courtney Carlson at the hot corner, McKenna Begin from the shortstop spot, and Reece McQuaker holding down the fort at first after making a strong impression upon joining the team as a rookie mid-season last year.
The Angels’ young guns kick off their season at the St. Francis Sports Field this Monday against Dawson.
Other games scheduled for Monday include Emo hosting Manitou, Couchiching visiting Sabaskong, and Big Grassy at Northwest Bay.
With the folding of the Wildcats leading to an uneven number of teams, the Mud Dogs are the first team to have the bye.