Jimmy Miller

Racers coach Brian Levin said he is excited to open the season against the two-time defending champion Bandits this weekend in Chicago.

As always, Levin said, pitching will be key in the matchup, and that’s especially true for the Racers, who are looking to rebound after a turbulent season in the circle.

The Racers drafted former Kent State standout Maddy Grimm after spending their first and second picks on pitchers Sara Groenewegen (Minnesota, No. 2 overall) and Megan Betsa (Michigan, No. 7), respectively. Levin said he hopes they will improve a rotation that compiled a 4.25 ERA, second-highest in the league.

“Both of them have tremendous off-speed pitches, and I think that’s crucial in this league to keep people off-balance,” Levin said. “They’re going to take their lumps like any rookie does, but we’ll see how they respond to it.”

Levin said he’s excited to bring back several key members of his rotation, including Laura Winter and Rachele Fico, who combined to toss 97 innings for the Racers in 2016. Jailyn Ford also returns from a stint in the Japan Women’s Softball League, where she joined fellow pitcher Aimee Creger. Ford earned a team-high nine wins last season.

Still, the Racers lost ace Sarah Pauly (team-best 3.45 ERA), who has joined the Italian Softball League.

Offensively, the Racers return NPF Rookie of the Year Sami Fagan, who hit .387 and started 50 of the team’s 52 games last year. She tied the team record with 62 hits and set the NPF rookie record for RBI and batting average. She joins second baseman Ashley Thomas, who had a 14-game hitting streak last summer.

Outfielder A.J. Andrews, who hit .260 and scored 24 runs in 2016, became the first woman presented with a Rawlings Gold Glove for her defensive performance last season. She will be honored by the city of Akron and the Ohio High School Athletic Associated before the state tournament championship games Saturday at Firestone Stadium.

Longtime Racers Taylor Schlopy and Kelley Montalvo, along with several other veterans, will be counted on to guide a strong rookie class that includes outfielders Megan Geer and Nicole Schroeder, pitcher Alexis Silkwood and Grimm.

“We’ve got a couple right-handed power hitters coming in from the draft, which is something we’ve been missing in the past,” Levin said. “So hopefully they’ll be able to adjust to the pitching here and be consistent.”