Loaded Stars hope to enjoy the ride – all the way to the top

BNL coach Brad Gilbert and the Stars have won back-to-back regional titles. Now they’re shooting for the stars during the 2023 season.

By Justin Sokeland


BEDFORD – After two record-setting seasons, after back-to-back deep runs in the postseason, Bedford North Lawrence’s perspective has changed. Getting there is not good enough. That’s like driving to a tourist attraction without stopping to appreciate it. The Stars want the full-ride ticket.

With a high-impact senior class, with a roster rich in talent and experience, BNL will take its best swing at the grand prize. At the same time, veteran head coach Brad Gilbert wants his Stars to enjoy the journey. Coming off back-to-back 28-win seasons and regional titles, there’s not much further BNL can go. But that last step to the state championship game is the prime objective.

“We’ve made it the last two years, now just making it is not the goal,” Gilbert said as BNL started official practice sessions this week for the 2023 campaign. “It’s leaving that night as semistate champs, playing for a state championship.

“It’s not fair to say ‘State champ or bust.’ Our expectations are to improve every day in practice, get better and have a lot of fun. When you put that out there – ‘Hey, we have to get to the state’ – sometimes you don’t enjoy the progress, the ride. That too much pressure. We just need to take care of business, against whoever is in the other dugout, and enjoy the ride. It’s really been fun the last few years, and it should be another exciting year.”

There’s no question BNL has the collection of stars to shoot for the stars. Start with senior hurler Annie Waggoner, an Indiana State recruit and Miss Softball candidate. She went 20-3 with a sterling 1.31 ERA and 198 strikeouts in the circle last season, plus she hit .418 with 4 home runs and 27 RBIs.

BNL senior Annie Waggoner went 20-3 with 198 strikeouts in the circle last season.

Then look at center field, where senior Braxton McCauley roams. She’s a Purdue recruit who slugged .429 with 7 homers and 31 RBIs a year ago. Senior second baseman Lauryn Anderson (.305) has converted to switch hitting to add power pop from the right side while still dangerous as a slap-hitting lefty. That trio, expect for the year stolen by the virus shutdown, has been a fixture in the starting lineup. The other senior is Haley Davis, who is ready to claim a spot at first base when she’s not pitching.

“We are expecting big things,” Gilbert said. “Annie has worked really hard. And her hitting has helped us tremendously. Braxton’s just so quick in the outfield. She gets to balls most people don’t get to, and she has a rocket arm. First base will be Davis, when she’s not pitching, it will be a rotation, depending on who is in the circle.

“These kids were so ready their freshman year, they had really surprised us. Then of course, COVID wiped it out. So they’ve all worked hard to make up for lost time.”

That’s enough talent to do damage, but there’s much more.

The spotlight will shine brightest on super sophomore Ava Ratliff, named the best catcher in the nation last season. All she did was crush a state-best (and program record) 21 home runs, hit .538 and drive in 53 runs, making all the college scouts lick their lips and drool a little. She was such a force, she was intentionally walked six times during the final two games. Gilbert expects more of that pitch-around approach from opponents.

“Last year was just an incredible season for her,” Gilbert said. “It was amazing to see. Her home runs got a lot of attention across the country. I don’t know that we expect her to have that big of a season, but we’re anxious to see what happens. I anticipate, during the regular season, she’ll get pitched to some. Conference games, probably not a lot. Postseason, probably not at all.

Feared slugger Ava Ratliff blasted 21 home runs and drove in 53 runs as a freshman.

“We’ve worked hard to make sure that doesn’t happen again. We hit behind her pretty well all year, but that last game (an extra-inning loss in the semistate semifinal) we had opportunities that we didn’t take advantage of. The girls know we have to do a better job when the opportunities are there.”

The other returning starters will include Aliza Jewell (.372, 8 HRs, 27 RBIs in right field, plus 8-0 in the circle) and Kendall Graves, who will make the natural move from third base to the key position of shortstop. “Kendall has a strong arm, she’s very quick,” Gilbert said. “That’s her natural spot.”

That leaves two spots open. And that’s the biggest question BNL must answer. Who fills left field, who settles in at third base? Tori NIkirk and Haleigh Canada are the leading contenders at third.

“Left field is up for grabs,” Gilbert said. “It will be, like it always is, the nine girls who are hitting the ball the best will find a spot on the field. I see a lot of different girls out there.”

The first week of the season will go a long way to settle that competition. BNL will open on March 23 at Castle, stay the night in Evansville, then make a spring-break, spring-training trip to Tennessee for five games that weekend. When the Stars return, they should be ready for a tough regular-season schedule as they defend their Hoosier Hills Conference crown.

“Our goal is really the same,” Gilbert said. “Hopefully that semistate loss last year gave us a lot of motivation through the offseason. We want to win the conference, we want to win the sectional and regional – which will both be at home, if we’re fortunate enough to win the sectional.

“We’re looking forward to it.”

BNL senior and Purdue recruit Braxton McCauley collected 31 RBIs in 2022.