Niagara Gazette — Cheryl O’Connor is a new face around the softball diamonds at Grand Island High School.
After inheriting a team that returns three all-Niagara Frontier League selections, including one of the league’s top pitchers, there may be none more excited about this softball season than the Vikings’ first-year varsity coach.
O’Connor spent her past four seasons leading a rebuilding effort at North Tonawanda while teaching kindergarten at GI. So when the position with the Vikings opened up over the summer, O’Connor jumped at what she thought was a perfect opportunity.
The Vikings turned a few heads last season, exceeding expectations at 7-7 in the NFL. When O’Connor first met with her team in the winter, she imagined the possibilities.
“I remembered playing them last year and what the girls were capable of,” O’Connor said. “When I started, I looked at the talent on this team and they have the potential to do some big things.”
As the season gets underway, O’Connor glances at her roster and notices the talent and dedication to compete with the NFL’s top programs. At the team’s first meeting, she asked how many of her new players were on travel teams. All but one hand raised.
“Almost every girl on this team is playing travel ball in the offseason,” O’Connor said. “It was a nice surprise. ... It says a lot about this team.”
It’s a team that’s built around its star pitcher. Sophomore Alley Cutting, a first-team all-NFL selection last year, will spearhead a pitching staff that will make O’Connor’s transition decidedly easier.
Cutting won four decisions for the Vikings last season, striking out 75 batters over 52.1 innings while allowing just eight earned runs. She also led the team in hits (27), batting average (.443) and RBI (21).
Another returner, Rosie Russell, and junior Jillian Scheean, a lefty, provide added depth in the circle when needed, but Cutting will dictate her own pace.
“It’s a wonderful feeling when you walk into a program and you have a pitcher and she’s already throwing heat,” O’Connor said. “I have one of the best pitchers in Western New York. ... It’s critical when you walk into a program when there’s already established pitching.”
Beyond the pitching lies a pair of returning seniors to lead the offense. All-NFL second-teamer Ashley Colan will resume catching duties and bat fifth while corner specialist Courtney Collignon, who earned third-team all-league honors, hits clean-up.
“Ashley is a rock behind the plate,” O’Connor said, “and Courtney is going to be such an asset. She’s so strong at either first or third base. I can’t even tell you which one she’s better at because she’s so strong at both.”
The rest of the lineup, O’Connor said, will be critical.
The Vikings also return center fielder Annie Corrao, who led the team with 10 stolen bases last year, Jessica Amsdill in left field and Ciara Alcorn in right. In the infield, returning senior Melissa Gibson will start at shortstop, Leah Geis at second base and Jenna Ness at third.
The deep, experienced roster should help the Vikings enter the conversation of the NFL’s best this season.
“My hope is to be a competitor with the top runners in the league,” O’Connor said. “Obviously we have a very strong league. It’ll be tough, but I think we’ll be able to run with the best of them.”Follow contributing sports reporter Brandon Schlager on Twitter @B_Schlag.