• Mark Leffingwell / Daily Camera

    Erie junior Rio Sanchez returns this season to lead the Tigers on their quest for a state championship.

  • David R. Jennings / Daily Camera

    Erie junior Rio Sanchez returns this season to lead the Tigers on their quest for a state championship.

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ERIE — Considering the major changes the Erie High School softball team underwent since the end of last season, having star pitcher Rio Sanchez back in the circle is a welcome comfort.

Sanchez, in turn, has grown even more comfortable as the team’s ace since she established herself as one of the elite pitchers in Colorado’s Class 4A as just a sophomore last season. Taking the same old approach to the 2015 season, Sanchez is ready to assume an even greater share of the load as a junior.

The more Sanchez can contribute, the better the Tigers will be.

“I just feel more confident than the previous years,” Sanchez said. “I feel like I’ve mentally and physically improved with my pitches, and both are important. It’s a new start with a new coach so it’s cool to see how we have come together as a team.”

Prior to this season, legendary head coach Bob Bledsoe announced that he was stepping down after 20 years and 11 state championships. Bledsoe’s departure signaled the move to Harold Simmons, who has spent the last seven seasons as Erie’s head baseball coach and assistant softball coach. Sanchez’s consistency promises to help ease the transition.

Sanchez went 8-1 with 2.23 ERA as a freshman. As a sophomore last season, Sanchez went 11-7 in the circle with a 1.46 ERA and 163 strikeouts in 120 innings. Through seven games this season, the Tigers 6-1 and ranked second in 4A, with their only loss coming by one run against 4A state runner-up Frederick. In the pitcher’s circle for the entirely of those seven games, Sanchez (6-1) has posted a 1.17 ERA while striking out 54 batters over 53.2 innings.

Despite her pitching dominance, there’s more for Sanchez to do this year. Pitcher Katie Kovetz (3.10 ERA) graduated after last season and this year’s No. 2 hurler Lynsey Bauchert is out with an ankle injury, so Sanchez figures to get all the action in the circle. What’s more, Sanchez, who has hit eight home runs since the start of her sophomore year, will bat in the lead-off spot this season.

“It’s definitely different because you always have the fast slappers first and then you have your power hitters later in the lineup,” Sanchez said. “But it’s been working out pretty well so far and I think we’re going to stick to it. I’m expecting us to be really good.

“We’re getting more and more confident in each other, which is really good. Everyone has talent and we have a lot of hard workers on the team. It’s a different team but we’re doing really, really great and improving every day.”

Erie also graduated catcher Tiffany Maul (.421, 19 RBI) and speedster Kenzie Kudrna (.273, 12 stolen bases) but expectations remain high as usual. While Simmons said the Tigers will need a total team effort if they wish to compete for a Tri-Valley League title and make another deep playoff run, a lot of their success will depend on Sanchez.

“We were going to lean on her anyway,” Simmons said. “Once our No. 2 went down, we knew Rio was going to throw 100 percent of the innings until she gets back. We now have her in the lead-off spot since she’s our best hitter and we want to get our best hitter the most at-bats, especially since we can courtesy run for her since she’s the pitcher. We’re relying on her pitching and our defense and with Rio in the circle, we feel like we can compete with anyone.”

Brad Cochi: cochib@dailycamera.com or twitter.com/BradCochi