Lady Celt Dani Saunders relays a throw during practice earlier this week. Saunders is one of many returning players for the Celtics this season. (KEIZERTIMES/Eric A. Howald)

Of the Keizertimes

Anyone trying to discern the future of the McNary High School varsity softball team need look no further than the number of players planning to continue their careers in college.

Four players on the roster have committed to college-level teams. Hailey Decker is headed to University of Nebraska-Lincoln’s Cornhusker team. Olivia Yarbrough will be playing for Towsen University in Maryland. Brittney Gonzalez and Tiffany Kottek are taking positions at Chemeketa Community College.

While that says volumes about the depth of talent in the Celtic ranks, its the team mentality where Head Coach Jeff Auvinen hopes to make the biggest strides.

“The league is going to be tough and competitive at the top. If we can develop some unity as a group and become a family and pull the same direction, then I can’t see any reason why the sky wouldn’t be the limit.” Auvinen said.

In addition, the Celts return a bevy of players including Beth Bello, Paige Bouska, Lauren Ronning, Jordyn Hanson and Dani Saunders.

“We also have some new kids coming into the varsity level that can bolster us offensively and defensively,” Auvinen said.

Hanson hoped to build on the team unity that started forming in the Celts’ last season. The team took second in the Central Valley Conference in 2011, but was ousted from the playoffs in the first round due to a 3-1 loss against Sunset High School.

“The chemistry is a lot better than it was last year. We had so many people that graduated the year before and, this year, we only have three open spots,” Hanson said.

Hanson will resume duties on the mound for the Celtics this season with her sights set on taking South Salem High School down a notch from their traditionally dominating performances.

“We had a really hard time against South last year and if we get in on them quickly, we’ll be a really solid team this year,” Hanson said.

The depth of returners also bodes well for the hitting line-up, said Decker.

“It’s going to be solid. We only have two new people and we know each other’s strengths and weaknesses a lot better,” she said.

Decker, who committed to the Cornhuskers last November, said she’s going to be focusing on “learning how to be a good teammate and communicate well, but learning how to be a leader is something I’m looking forward to.”

Weather and a weather-related school cancelation have eaten into the already shortened practice schedule for the Lady Celts, but Auvinen didn’t discount the possibility of setting up an intramural match before the first game of the season slated for Tuesday, March 13, at The Dalles-Wahtonka High School.

“It would be nice to see how the team responds in a live situation,” Auvinen said.