Kirtland Central and Shiprock look to surmount the .500 mark

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FARMINGTON – Andi Clark has brought a District 1-4A championship back to Bloomfield in each of her first three seasons as Lady Bobcats softball coach. She will have to successfully shift her team's identity if she hopes to make it four straight.

Bloomfield has been the cream of the crop in 4A since Clark's arrival prior to the 2013 season. Last year, the Lady Bobcats went 10-0 in district play on their way to a 26-7 overall record. Zuni was just behind Bloomfield in the district with an 8-2 mark, while Kirtland Central and Shiprock struggled to dual 4-6 records.

The Lady Bobcats will shift from a power-hitting lineup to a team more reliant on its speed in 2016. Chelsey Runyon slugged 11 of Bloomfield's 17 home runs last season, but she has graduated, along with Shayla Felix, Jasmine Sappington, Jessica Burnham and Chelsey Largo.

Bloomfield sophomore Brandi Alcantar is the only player on this year's roster to have hit a home run last year. Clark said she thinks her team can run down another district title with the new approach.

"Honestly, I have talent already, and I've added a lot of speed," Clark said. "Kirtland Central will give us a run for our money — they're always a tough team. But I like what we have."

The Lady Bobcats will be mostly comprised of juniors and sophomores, led by three seniors — Daysha Smith, Thalia O'Neil and Kristen Espinosa. Largo led the team with 21 stolen bases last year, but Smith and Espinosa combined for 18 steals and will play more in 2016.

With Burnham gone, O'Neil will take over as the team's unquestioned ace starting pitcher after totaling a team-high 13 wins and registering a 3.21 earned run average last year. Sophomore Ashley Lewellen will be the No. 2 pitcher for Bloomfield. Clark thinks her pitchers will turn in a solid season.

"I definitely expect those two girls to do their jobs. They're both very good pitchers," Clark said. "I've got a few other girls that I can throw in there, too. I have options this year, more than even last year."

The Lady Bobcats' regular-season schedule begins today with an 11:45 a.m. game versus Los Alamos at Piedra Vista's tournament in Farmington.

Kirtland Central, which went 9-17 overall last year, will be guided by first-year coach Cody Gilmore, who has high hopes for his squad.

"All around, I think the pieces to the puzzle are there," Gilmore said. "We've got a solid group with four seniors, three juniors and the rest sophomores. If they mesh well, they can be special."

Gilmore spent the last few years at Farmington High School as an assistant softball, basketball and football coach. He said he thinks every hitter in his lineup is capable of getting on base consistently.

Nikki Begay will be the driving force for KC's offense, according to Gilmore. The sophomore catcher and infielder will serve as the No. 3 hitter to begin the season.

Junior Shiloh Lewis and sophomore Andrea Weaver will be the two primary pitchers for KC this season. Gillmore said he expects good things from both.

"Those two have a variety of pitches they can use to get hitters out," Gilmore said. "They'll definitely be our workhorses."

After hitting more than .500 and batting leadoff for much of last season, Weaver also figures to be a key cog offensively for KC.

The Lady Broncos put up a fight, but lost their first game of the season to Miyamura by a score of 3-1 on Tuesday. KC will play Aztec today at PV's tournament.

Shiprock will return eight players from its 2015 squad, which finished with an overall record of 10-14.

The Lady Chieftains graduated three seniors from last year's team and will have four on the roster this year. Coach Levi Toledo said his team will feature a blend of experienced players and raw, younger athletes. He expects his team speed to be an asset.

"Some of our young players are some real fast runners," Toledo said. "Hopefully, some of our returning players who know what we're trying to do here can help those young girls get better."

Junior catcher Brianna Littlecrow and senior left-handed pitcher Shelbie Little should form one of the more formidable batteries in District 1-4A this season. Toledo said he thinks both players have a lot to offer.

"I think Brianna will be a productive two-way player for us," he said. "They're probably our top leaders, as well."

Shiprock will open its season on the road with a doubleheader against Navajo Prep on Tuesday.

Jake Newby covers sports for The Daily Times. He can be reached at 505-564-4577. 

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