WARDSVILLE, Mo. - Blair Oaks wants to take care of some unfinished business.
Despite a third-place finish in Class 3 and a gaudy 23-8 record in 2012, the Lady Falcons aren't satisfied.
"It was a good year, and certainly getting to the Final Four, it gave a lot of players an opportunity to see what a Final Four was about, but at the same time there was disappointment in not finishing first," Blair Oaks softball coach Sharon Buschjost said. "It just gives them that much more to look forward to and have the same goals this year to get back there."
The journey back to the Final Four starts at 5 p.m. today at St. Elizabeth.
Buschjost said she thinks the Lady Falcons can win a state title.
"We're good enough to compete with everyone else that can get there," Buschjost said. "Some things and positions are in place and as strong as they were last year, but some areas we need to look to get help from with those who graduated."
There are some big shoes to fill in three places, as Blair Oaks must replace a trio of second-team all-staters in catcher Amy Dorge, pitcher Michaella Forck and center fielder Paige Kleffner.
"With graduation, we lost a couple players who produced many of our runs," Buschjost said, referencing Dorge and Kleffner's combined 11 home runs. "It's kind of looking and saying, "Hmm, who is going to be that Amy Dorge, that Paige Kleffner? Who is going to fill that spot of RBI?' And I don't know the answer to that, but I know there's some potential there."
Sliding in at catcher will be junior Taylor Markway.
"Having Taylor ready to fill into that, there's comfort in there, in not only her ability defensively, but she has the potential to fill some of that RBI void left with Amy.
"Contact is something we can expect when she's up. She doesn't necessarily have that home run swing, she does have the concept of swinging to contact. She just throws the bat at the ball, but it seems to find holes. She hits for average and very seldom does she strike out."
Easing the loss of Forck in the pitcher's circle is the return of Payton Staggs, who as a freshman tossed a perfect game last season against School of the Osage.
"Payton is the No. 1 pitcher," Buschjost said. "She will see quite a few innings this season.
"Even last year, she was ready to play a bigger role than maybe what she did. She competes at a very high level. I think she would have been ready last year, but this is her year now to kind of be that go-to pitcher."
Anchoring the Blair Oaks lineup will be returning first-team all-stater Jolie Duffner. While she'll see split time between shortstop and second base, Duffner, along with 2011 second-team all-state center fielder Sara Jones, will be required to return the offense to 2012 levels, when the Lady Falcons launched 23 home runs.
"Those two pieces right there," Buschjost said, noting the importance of the pair, "each of them offers a lot of things to our team."
Holding down the corner infield spots will be Ashley Forck at first base and Lauren Viessman at third base.
"Ashley's definitely somebody that we will rely on for RBI and to hit for power," Buschjost said. "Lauren takes care of the third-base area pretty good. She's quick on her feet, so she's quick to bunts, releases the ball quickly."
Second base gets a bit tricky.
"There's some shoulder issues with LeeAnn Polowy," Buschjost said. "We have to look at the possibility of that scenario that played out at the end of the year last year, with her contributing just offensively, might come into play this year. I just know that LeeAnn Polowy will definitely be a starter on the team, whether she's contributing both defensively and offensively, not quite sure. We'll do what's best for the team and for her."
Paige Siebeneck will get the start in left field, with Blake Burks and Heather Vaught also slated to see time in the outfield. Freshman catcher Nicole Otto and pitcher Taylor Gehlert will assume backup roles.
Blair Oaks can take some solace in the fact they won't have to face Erin Struemph today. Struemph, a three-time all-state pitcher for St. Elizabeth, graduated and now is with Missouri State. She pitched the Lady Hornets to season-opening victories the past two seasons against Blair Oaks.
"A lot of area schools are probably like, "Ohh, she's finally graduated,'" Buschjost said. "I say that complimentary of her, because she is tough. You appreciate watching that and seeing it for four years, but you're ready for her to move on to her next level and put it to the test there. It's still St. Elizabeth and they will compete, but it will be a little bit different without Erin Streumph in the circle.
"My goal the first game is always to just give everybody a taste of getting on the field. In one way or another, I always try to get all my varsity players on the field. That's worked pretty well. I think it helps everybody relax a little bit sooner, and they're not always wondering when they're going to get in."