SOUTH WHITLEY — There is a big difference between a successful team and a successful program. A great high school team has a run, wins some titles and then drifts away when the good players graduate. A great high school program expects to contend every year.

The Whitko Lady Wildcats softball team is that kind of program — the girls expect to win titles again and take that next step past semi-state.

For two seasons in a row, Whitko has had its season end at the semi-state round. Last year the team lost in the first game, and the year before the Lady ’Cats fell in the semi-state title game. While Whitko has a lot of new faces on the roster for this upcoming season, there are still key members back who are stepping in to leadership roles as the team prepares for the year.

The big-two for Whitko back this year are catcher Emmalee Duggins and pitcher Elle Snep. Both Duggins and Snep are four-year starters for the team. The duo are also the focus of a team defense that doesn’t make many mistakes in the field.

“We all focus on being well-rounded players,” Duggins said of her teammates. “Any person is willing to lay down a bunt and do whatever it takes to help our team win.”

The foundation for the Whitko program begins and ends with one word — fundamentals. The Lady ’Cats stress their daily practices, and it shows on the field.

“What we do in open gym to what we do every day in practice is basic fundamentals,” Whitko head coach Michele Garr said.

The outfield will be another area of strength for Whitko this season. Sophomore Madison Smith takes over in centerfield and Shi Bradley is back in right field.

Freshman Guinny Garr is going to spell Duggins some at catcher. The Garr and Duggins duo will also split time in the infield. Guinny’s sister, Gus, sustained an injury at the beginning of basketball season. Coach Garr said there is the possibility Gus could be ready for the sectional tournament, but there is no plan to rush her back to the field.

Also in the infield for the team is third baseman Misha Brandenberg. Garr said she has worked hard to earn a spot on the field.

“We have a lot of young players,” Coach Garr said. “We need to get them some time on the field.”

The Three Rivers Conference will see Whitko be challenged by Northfield and Manchester for conference supremacy. Plus, Whitko plays an always-tough non-conference schedule. Whitko faces county rivals Columbia City and Churubusco as well as other tough teams in Huntington North and Carroll.

“We try to set ourselves up for postseason play by challenging our kids,” Garr said of the team’s schedule.

While Garr said the team is only looking at one game at a time, the Lady ’Cats all want to get back to semi-state. Part of that success comes from how well the girls have already bonded with each other.

The Wildcats get their first chance to see how well things go on the field March 20 when the team opens the season at Churubusco.