NORTH ADAMS -- The MCLA softball team was four runs from making an appearance in the NCAA Division III tournament. That shortfall is something the Traiblazers and coach Mike Ameen would like to change.
MCLA lost to Bridgewater State 2-0 and 2-1 in the MASCAC Tournament championship series. It was a tough way to end what turned out to be a good season.
"I think we're stronger this year than we were last year," said the fourth-year head coach. "We have more depth, a little bit more experience. We have the same pitching. So overall, I think we're in a good position to be stronger in the regular season."
The Trailblazers are the preseason No. 2 pick in the conference. Defending champion Bridgewater State is No. 1 and got six of the eight first-place votes. MCLA got the other two first-place votes. They are in Florida for a week and after returning north, begin the rest of their season against Worcester State on March 29.
For Ameen, it all starts in the circle. The Traiblazers have an outstanding one-two combination in sophomore Rachel Quackenbush and junior Amanda Meczywor.
Meczywor is MCLA's regular second baseman, but will spell Quackenbush, who made quite the debut last year.
Quackenbush, from Hoosick Falls, N.Y., led the MASCAC with 153 strikeouts in only 122 innings, and she is only 97 strikeouts from breaking the record of 249 set by Jenn Golden in 2003. Quackenbush was third in the conference last year with a 1.32 earned-run average, and she tied for fourth in the league with 11 wins.
"She was the Rookie of the Year last year and first-team All-MASCAC," said Ameen. "Rachel Quackenbush was probably one of the best [high school] pitchers in the state of New York. She's dynamic."
Meczywor played for Ameen at Hoosac Valley, and while many teams wouldn't mind having her as their No. 1 pitcher, the Trailblazers have the luxury of using her as their No. 2 starter.
"Amanda Meczywor is just a tremendous competitor. She battles it. She has poise on the mound. She has experience," said Ameen. "She keeps batters off-balance."
Offensively, Meczywor and former Mount Greylock outfielder Michaela DiNicola will lead the MCLA offense.
DiNicola is the top returning hitter having batted .317 and had 40 hits. She also scored 20 runs. DiNicola was seventh in the conference in hitting.
Meczywor is the No. 2 returning hitter for Ameen, and she was 21st in MASCAC with a .286 batting average. They are the only two returning Trailblazers who hit in the top 30 in the conference.
Meczywor did drive in 22 runs last year and was among the top five in that category in the conference.
The Trailblazers hit nine home runs last year, but lost six of them when Kendra Hobbs and Megan Boyer graduated. Sophomore shortstop Shelbi Clary, who played at Taconic, is the top returning home run hitter. She had two.
"I think we'll be a little bit of both. We're better offensively than we were last year. We have more depth and better power through the middle of the lineup," said Ameen. "A point of emphasis in practice this spring was to create a short game.
"We played Bridgewater five times last year. We beat them three times and they beat us twice. We scored a total of eight runs in five games. They scored seven runs in five games. It comes down to who can put a runner on base and get her across."
Ameen has no seniors on his 15-player roster. Seven of the 15 come from Berkshire County.
Clary will start at shortstop as she did while she was a freshman. Junior Sam Barbarotta of Taconic hit .232 as a regular outfielder, and sophomore Tanelle Ciempa of Hoosac Valley hit .264 in 37 games.
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