APPLETON - The inclement weather has prevented this spring sports season to get started in full capacity, but Monday one of the premier teams every spring finally opened it season when Appleton East hosted Oshkosh North in a Fox Valley Association softball game.
East is a perennial FVA contender and has reached the state tournament the previous five seasons and despite the loss of key players, including FVA player of the year Marissa Michalkiewicz, the Patriots are expected to be in their usual form.
Monday, East was as it reminded North how good you have to be to be considered an FVA contender as the Patriots topped the Spartans, 5-1, at Del Prust Field.
"I thought our kids really handled it well," East coach Janel Batten said of her team playing the first game. "They weren't really nervous, maybe once or twice in a couple innings."
A staple of East for the previous three seasons and once again this season is pitcher Lauren Blasczyk. The senior, who's headed to the University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire next season, was her normal self, holding North to four hits, while striking out six.
She had one serious test in the second inning, when runners reached second and third base with no outs. Blasczyk wiggled her way out of the jam and then the Patriots made North pay.
First, Holly Ahrens ignited East with a two-run homer in the bottom of the second.
"It felt great, especially since it was my first at-bat of the season," said Ahrens, who had two hits and three RBIs. "I think it (the pitch) was a little bit outside, but I'm not sure."
Then, Tori Sweeney followed with a solo blast and the three runs were all Blasczyk would need.
"I think that was big," Batten said. "Any time you can get out of a jam, it ignites our hitters. They're thinking if she got out a jam, we have to get some runs."
Ahrens agreed: "It gives us the momentum when we're on offense. Getting out of that jam was huge for us, because that's what started the momentum. It takes every player on the team to get that, not just Lauren. It was a team effort."
It always has been with East, as you don't make the state tournament five straight seasons with one or two players pitching in. The Patriots feel primed to have another successful season, and despite player losses to graduation, the team expects more of the same.
"They expect each other to step in," Batten said. "They expect success. We talk about the difference in programs, even at our school, they don't expect to win. They step in and fill each other's shoes."
East will try to win consecutive FVA titles for the first time since 1997-98 and knows it will be a grind.
"I hate to count anybody out, but I think legitimately there could be six or seven at the top," Batten said. "There are some great teams out there."
Beyond the FVA is the state tournament. When you've made it five straight seasons the expectations are there for another trip, but the Patriots want more than just a visit to Madison, they want a state title.
"Whatever we do, we want to end our season in Madison," Batten said. "I think that's what they're building for."
"It's everyone's goal to get there," Ahrens said. "For us to win, it's definitely our goal."
Follow Doug Ritchay on Twitter @dougritchay
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