Year in and out, Coconino Panthers manager Kimberly Dennis stresses the importance of defense to her team.

This season, she's got a dugout full of returners who were solid at the plate last year to help back up the focus on getting outs.

With all but one of their 11 underclassmen from a year ago back to play another season, the Panthers return a group of hitters who have shown quality at-bats lead to quantity at the plate.

By the end of 2017, when including tournament play outside the regular-season schedule, the Panthers recorded 188 runs scored and 158 RBIs on 253 hits. While Coconino's trio of seniors led the way in RBIs, the underclassmen were getting on base and coming around, providing 121 of the 188 runs scored.

"I think we definitely have good hitters coming back for us and have potential to be an offensive threat," Dennis said.

Dennis has an idea of just how to fill in the spaces that the graduated seniors left vacant.

“There are some shoes to fill that way, but I think we have the capability of doing that and building upon what we did last year," the longtime skipper said.

Taylor Brown, now a junior, ended her second season on varsity with a team-high 30 RBIs and 37 hits, tallying the team's second-most doubles at eight and tying Kaitlyn Snopek in home runs with four. She also had the team's best batting average at .409 and best slugging percentage at .636.

A three-year starter on varsity as she enters her junior year, Snopek has worked both sides of the plate during her career, throwing the most innings for the team last season. With a bat in her hand last year, she collected seven doubles on the way to getting 30 hits, trailing only Brown in both categories.

The two helped the young ballclub reach the first round of the 4A Conference state tournament last season as the No. 11 seed after finishing in third place in the Grand Canyon Region with an 8-4 record and going 13-5 in the regular season overall. Also providing a big bat was Ashlyn Hernandez, another junior who Dennis said she expects to play a role in the lineup.

With Kathryn Tso the only player not returning to the team and Rachel Tosi graduated, Brown is expected to join Snopek in the circle this season, taking on a role that she's known before, but has not been in while wearing a varsity uniform.

Snopek did the most work in the circle last season, pitching 97 2/3 innings on the way to finishing with a 4.30 ERA and 72 strikeouts. 

Even with solid pieces working on both sides of the plate, Dennis said last year's success came from chemistry and a team-first approach to winning ballgames. As Tuesday's season opener at Bradshaw Mountain approaches, Dennis has been reminding the team how their mentality to put the individual aside for the betterment of the team paid dividends last year.

“They need to have the same philosophy and same approach about the Panthers, not the individual," Dennis said.

The team was invested in letting the offense run on unselfish play, timely hitting and successful situational hitting, and the result led to outscoring 2017 regular-season opponents 132-86. Of the four current seniors in Hallie Chiaverini, Tayler Dominguez, McKenna Gladden and Makynzie Miller-Smith, Gladden and Miller-Smith have the most experience from last season with a combined 141 total plate appearances and 20 RBIs.

“Seeing what you need at the moment will be an offensive focus, and hitting to contact. We are not trying to hit it out of the park; I mean, if they fly out, awesome, but most of the time when you are not trying that’s when they will," Dennis said. "We are looking for contact and moving runners 60 feet.”

Mike Hartman can be reached at 556-2255 or at mhartman@azdailysun.com.

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