ABINGTON — Katie Donovan was wavering. She was trying to preserve a 6-5 Abington High lead in the top of the sixth inning, but visiting Rockland was threatening, the potential tying run standing at first base with two outs.
Donovan, a freshman, bore down and fired the final pitch of the inning for a called strike three.
End of threat.
“If I don’t focus on my next pitch, it’ll most likely be a ball,” said Donovan, after the Green Wave had put up a crooked number in the bottom half of the sixth on its way to a 13-5 win last Tuesday afternoon, its fourth win in as many games during the young season. “So I really have to dig down deep and get into my legs and throw it and know I’m going to win the battle. And that’s what I did.”
It was not a particularly pretty performance for the defending EMass. Division 2 champions, but it might be the new norm for a squad minus graduated ace Kelly Norton , who was the only pitcher to start a game for coach Ernie Ortega in his first two years at the school.
That is the challenge for Ortega and high school coaches everywhere: replacing cornerstone players after graduation.
It is particularly true at Abington and Bridgewater-Raynham, the reigning Division 1 South champion, at the dawn of the 2013 season. Both are replacing their aces: Norton at Abington, and Audrey Dolloff at B-R.
Their approaches, though, are quite different.
Abington is using a trio of young hurlers — Donovan, freshman righty Hanna Rogers , and sophomore lefty Megan Kelly — while sophomore Sara Dawson will handle the bulk of the innings for B-R.
“It’s different. It’s weird,” said Abington captain Stephanie Cornish of having someone other than Norton in the pitching circle. “But you have to give them confidence and support so that when they go up there they know everyone has their back. We support them.”
The Green Wave trio is splitting the innings about evenly, and no one has emerged as a clear No. 1, at least, not yet. There have been bright spots, including Donovan’s one earned run allowed in a complete-game effort against Rockland and Rogers’ three-hit shutout vs. Plymouth South April 5, but Ortega said he expects there to be some growing pains.
The three are learning on the job, thrown right into the fire.
Ortega is looking to the upperclassmen to pick up the slack at the plate and in the field.
“Pitching, we’re going to work that out,” said Ortega. “But we’ll hit with the best of them, we’ll field with the best of them, and the pitching will get there. We always, always work the bats. As long as we can keep those going, the pitchers can take their time coming along. And when they get there, it’ll be a double threat. It’ll be that much better.”
Ortega raved about his outfield, anchored by senior captain Alicia Reid in center.
“I’m more confident with the ball going to center field that it’s going to be an out than anywhere else on the field,” Ortega said. “Alicia Reid doesn’t miss a whole heck of a lot. If it drops in front of her, it’s because it’s a legitimate base hit.”
The players understand the situation and probable imbalance for at least the start of the season. All three pitchers agreed they back each other, be it by coming on in relief or simply offering encouragement from the bench.
“It’s kind of nerve-racking, but once you get out there . . . it’s no different [than any other game],” Rogers said. “Whoever is pitching, we’re always cheering them on.”
Last season, en route to earning Division 2 Player of the Year honors from the Globe, Norton posted a minuscule 0.60 earned run average while helping the Green Wave to a 23-3 season. She struck out 227 batters in 168 innings; by season’s end, she had started 71 games in a row.
Ortega said he knows it is unlikely any of his pitchers now will match those numbers — a dilemma to which B-R coach Mike Carrozza can relate.
Dolloff, who went to Southern Connecticut State University to play field hockey and walked on to the softball team, posted a 1.41 ERA and racked up 113 strikeouts as the Trojans captured the Old Colony League and D1 South titles.
But Carrozza wants to get away from the idea that someone needs to be “the next Audrey.”
“You’re not replacing Audrey per se as much as you’re replacing the position,” Carrozza said.
Fortunately for Carrozza, B-R may have another ace in the hole.
Dawson, who last year got her feet wet with a 4-1 record and an ERA around 2.00, will be the go-to pitcher.
Is she ready to take the reins?
“Of course, yeah,” Dawson said with a laugh during practice Tuesday. “I’m just ready to get out there, ready to get on the mound. I was waiting last year. I just wanted to get out there last year, now I’ve just got to go out there and try my best.”
Junior shortstop Madi Shaw said Dawson has already exhibited a noticeable jump in velocity from last season, while senior first baseman Chelsea Correia , who caught Dawson in 2012, said the 6-foot-1 righthander’s repertoire is vast.
The Trojan leaders also said Dawson maintains her composure on the mound well, even when she is not at her best. Dawson said that is something she picked up from watching Dolloff last year.
Now in his 16th year at the helm, Carrozza has been through situations like this before. If he is anxious about his pitching, though, he does a good job hiding it. He emanates certainty when talking about his new young hurler.
“I have total confidence in Sara,” Carrozza said. “She has a good future and I’m confident she’s going to step up.”
Carrozza is hesitant to hold Dawson to the standards Dolloff set, but that does not mean Dawson will do the same.
“I want to do as well as Audrey did — hopefully better, but obviously she did really well,” said Dawson, who also hit her fair share of line drives during batting practice Tuesday. “So I’m just going to try my best and hopefully put the same numbers up if not [better] numbers.”Tim Healey can be reached at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @timbhealey.