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AYER – The Ayer softball team has resided on top or near the top of MidWach D over recent history, but fifth-year coach Dan Civitarese is faced with the most uncertainty of his tenure as the 2006 season beckons. The Lady Panthers enter the season with many questions to answer because of both anticipated and unanticipated departures.

Last June’s graduation cost the team the services of catcher Stephanie Schwartz, shortstop Kelly Tufaro and designated hitter-outfielder Emily Ford, and the Lady Panthers will field a roster with a solid nucleus, plus a number of players looking to establish themselves at the varsity level.

Only three returning players will be in the same position as last season, which has kept Civitarese busy during the spring trying to develop the right lineup for the season opener. Senior right fielder Lauren Donell, the team’s captain, along with junior third baseman Stephanie Forest and sophomore first baseman Shannon Schwartz return to where they played last season.

“Lauren is a left-handed hitter with power and she will probably hit fourth or fifth,” said Civitarese. “She has a strong arm, is the hardest worker on the team and the other girls look up to her.

“Stephanie is a solid, sure-handed defensive player with a good arm,” said Civitarese. “Her hitting is improved this season.

“Shannon came up to the varsity midway through last season and is a big target at first and has a lot of upside defensively,” said Civitarese. “Offensively she is a streaky hitter who hits line drives.”

Junior Katy Salka has been the team’s workhorse on the mound the past two seasons, but she will be switching to shortstop this year.

“Katy has all the tools at shortstop,” said Civitarese. “She has great range, a cannon for an arm and is intelligent. Offensively, she is a good contact hitter and a very good bunter and will probably hit second. Shortstop will be her primary position, but she will still do some pitching.”

Stepping into the number one pitcher’s slot will be junior Erin Megan.

“Erin is throwing harder this season and is very calm and poised,” said Civitarese. “I want as many innings on the mound from her as I can get and she is a very important member of this team.”

Another veteran presence is junior Amanda Carlson, who will be switching to catcher after playing first base and outfield last season.

“Amanda is our most athletic player and is the fastest girl on the team,” said Civitarese. “She is versatile and competitive, is a good bunter and has shown more pop with the bat. She will either lead off or hit in the middle of the lineup.”

Sophomore Lauren Pires is the frontrunner for the starting second base slot after being an outfielder and pinch-hitter last year.

“Lauren has a good arm and is poised, and has a lot of potential both offensively and defensively,” said Civitarese. “She just needs to develop some confidence and her role will definitely increase.”

Leading the newcomers are sophomore Miranda Carlson and junior Mara Bacon.

“Miranda is an outfielder-first baseman who played on the junior varsity team last season,” said Civitarese. “She has a good swing, is sure-handed and has an accurate arm. She has been working hard towards earning a starting berth.

“Mara has decent catching skills and is in the mix for the catching slot, which would free up Amanda Carlson to play another position,” said Civitarese. “She can also play the outfield.”

Looking to create a niche will be senior Lindsey Jones, sophomore Jocelyn Hardgraves, and freshmen Morgan Gentry and Taylor Fox.

“Lindsey is enthusiastic and has a great attitude and adds a lot to the team’s chemistry,” said Civitarese. “Jocelyn hits the ball hard and has some power and could be a designated hitter. Morgan is fast, works hard and has a lot of potential. She listens and learns. Taylor is very athletic and has a lot of energy and just needs experience at this level.”

What are strengths of this year’s team?

“I think we have solid infield defense and we could have a strong 1-2 pitching combination,” said Civitarese. “My concerns are lack of varsity experience, and catching because we lost a three-year starter.

“”The key to our season will be the pitching of Erin Megan, how well our catchers step up, and how well the new kids adapt to varsity level,” said Civitarese. “There is more uncertainty now than in any other season I have been here, and we are working every day to answer the questions that are in place.”