By Dan Truttschel~Sports Correspondent

The recent past has been filled with success for the Wilmot softball team, including a pair of trips to the WIAA Division 1 state tournament and four straight Southern Lakes Conference titles.

Many of the key contributors to those teams now are sharing their skills at the collegiate level – but that doesn’t mean the Panthers still don’t have high expectations.

That hasn’t changed.

Wilmot enters the spring with five returning starters but many new and young faces on its varsity roster for first-year head coach Pat Dopke.

Dopke, a longtime assistant with the program, took over the varsity squad after Bob Movrich retired at the end of the 2012 campaign.

It’s early, and the Panthers had yet to practice outside as of early this week, but Dopke has been encouraged by what he has seen.

“I think this team has the talent to contend for a conference championship,” Dopke said. “I also believe we can compete with anyone that takes the field against us.”

Wilmot was led by a foursome of now college players – Kristen Wood, Kelsey Saucerman, Kelli Hutchinson and Bailie Sheahan – during its recent run that included a state runner-up finish in 2011.

“For four years, this team has been pretty much about four players,” Dopke said. “Those girls are now gone, and it is time for the girls on the 2013 team to be in the spotlight and to make names for themselves in the next chapter of Wilmot softball.

“As coaches, it is our job to prepare those players to be successful. We will continue to work extensively on the fundamentals of the game. You just don’t see bad players with good fundamentals.”

Starters back for another season on the varsity are seniors Jorie Brenner (pitcher), Taylor Kontaxis (catcher-first base) and Ashley Webster (second base-shortstop); junior Kerrigan Patterson (third base-second base-pitcher); and sophomores Lauren Orszula (first base-pitcher) and Justine Schattner (shortstop-pitcher).

All six bring a veteran presence to a team that includes five freshmen and three sophomores, Dopke said. Patterson and Webster enter the spring as three-year varsity starters.

“I think our biggest strength is that our girls have a lot of softball playing experience, be it at the varsity level or at the higher levels of travel softball,” he said. “Our girls know how to play the game.”

While he expects big things on the field from those six, Dopke also needs each of them to take on a leadership role this spring.

Among the biggest question that needs an answer is who will follow Wood – who now pitches for NCAA Division I Northwestern University – into the circle this spring.

That has yet to be determined, Dopke said, as Brenner, Orszula, Schattner and Patterson have been working at it every day in practice.

Rounding out the varsity roster are senior Madison Hahn (outfield); juniors Angela Nevoso (outfield) and Jessica Rainey (catcher-third base-first base); sophomore Kaylee Arendt (third base-first base) and freshmen Hannah Grossi (first base-outfield), Alyssa Horn (outfield), Sam Schloegl (outfield), Kiana Vazquez (outfield) and Sawyer Wightman (second base-outfield).

The freshmen impressed from the very first day of tryouts, Dopke said, and each earned their spot onto the varsity roster.

Wilmot has won the last four SLC titles, but it’s the Panthers’ main rival, Westosha Central, that is drawing most of the pre-season attention.

“This is the first time in a few years that we don’t have a target on our back,” Dopke said. “I feel that Central is the team to beat, coming off a state tournament appearance and returning seven starters.”