The only other time Garden City Community College softball head coach Becky Gundy had this many sophomore returners at her disposal, the Broncbusters had a stellar season.

That was in 2015, when Gundy had nine sophomore returners, and they took second in the Region VI tournament, winning 34 games overall. Now, Gundy, entering her sixth year at the helm, has nine more sophomore returners coming back from a disappointing 2017, when they went 18-36 overall and 5-19 in the KJCCC’s top division.

But all five of those regular season conference wins came in the final month of the schedule. As the weather warmed, so did the Busters, who finished the season strong and now head into 2018’s first pitch at 1 p.m. Wednesday against Sterling College JV with a solid group of returners determined to make a mark in the conference race this season.

“It’s definitely been nice,” Gundy said about the veteran experience “At the beginning of August, it was nice to have that big group so we can do different drills and get things going quickly.”

The Busters were slow out of the gate in 2017, but in April, they stole wins from both Seward County and Barton in dramatic extra-innings fashion. And they followed that up by eliminating Colby from the Region VI tournament.

Colby, Seward County and Barton all finished in a tie for second in the conference standings in the regular season, behind eventual national champion Butler, which won its second consecutive NJCAA title.

But Gundy is hoping this year’s Busters will start the season a little quicker, behind her sophomore core, which starts up with the middle of the defense, with Taylore Hartman at catcher and Erica Vessels at shortstop.

“Being able to have her back, and she did a great job behind the plate, managing our staff, It’s a great thing to have,” Gundy said of Hartman, who caught 54 games in 2017, hitting .238 with a .335 on-base percentage, but turning it on at the plate late in the season. “She really is a kind I look to to be an impact kid for us right away.”

Vessels was a second team All-KJCCC player in 2017, hitting .347 with a .419 OBP, eight home runs and 15 doubles. The Busters also return Micaela Martinez, an outfielder with light-tower power. Martinez blasted 16 home runs in 2017, fourth in the KJCCC, and best outside of Butler hitters. She also had a penchant for the clutch, hitting a pair of seventh-inning, game-tying home runs in eventual wins over Barton and Seward County, and then delivering two walk-off hits in one doubleheader vs. Pratt to end the regular season, the latter also being a home run.

The Busters also return versatile defender Bailee Muxlow-Volk (.322/.338/.356), infielder Hannah Adams (.267/.356/.293), as well as Angel Jimenez and Kelsey Ray to a lineup that should be fairly deep to begin the season, even if Gundy is still trying to find the right lineup combination.

In the circle, the Busters return Samantha Akers, who led them in innings pitched and strikeouts last season. She had a 7-16 record and a 5.29 ERA. Left-hander Marissa Montiel also returns after tossing 25 1/3 innings in 2017 with a 7.46 ERA.

Gundy also has a couple of freshmen coming in that she expects to step into pitching roles this season in Ariel Denny and Bailey Brawner, of Haven. Two other freshmen from Kansas are on the team, in catcher/outfielder Morgan Sanchez of Elkhart, and outfielder Nancy Wiebe of Scott City.

Note: Coaching ssistant Danielle Aronoff returns for her second season under Gundy.