Unprecedented success has created unprecedented expectations for this year’s Hillsboro High School softball team.
As freshmen, the sizable core group of this team powered the Trojans to the first state berth in program history. Last year, as sophomores, they claimed the first win at state and shattered the record for wins in a season with a sparkling 23-3 mark.
Now as juniors, what will they do for an encore?
For Stephanie Sinclair, in her sixth year as head coach, the expectation is clear: Play well one game at a time.
“We’re just going to go out each playing day to take care of business for that day and stay focused on who we’ve got right in front of us,” she said.
The Trojans lost two starters from last year: third baseman Tara Heinrichs (.289 batting average) to graduation, and No. 2 pitcher Franny Gottsch (9-0, 2.91 earned-run average as a pitcher, and .346 with 29 runs batted in at the plate), who moved out of the district after her sophomore season.
Even so, the development of young players will fill the gaps and give the Trojans the experience, depth and flexibility to make this year’s team a legitimate contender for league and post-season honors.
“It’s fun to build your team as strong as you can through the middle, and then build around that,” Sinclair said. “The cool thing is, right now I can say the whole field is strong.”
Solid in the outfield
For all the attention generated by the junior class, this year’s team will be led by senior Taylor Nikkel, an all-league and all-state performer in centerfield.
Her batting (.402, 20 RBIs, three home runs), fielding (.857, three errors) and speed (26 stolen bases in 28 attempts) make her a force for opposing teams to reckon with.
“Taylor’s doing great,” Sinclair said of her early workouts. “We’re tweaking a few little things, but outfield-wise, she brings so much experience. She’s been doing a great job with leadership, too. She picks kids up when they need it.”
Joining Nikkel in solidifying the outfield are juniors Krista Reimer (.427, 22 RBIs, 1 HR) and Amy Bartel (.250, 4 RBIs) from last season, and a new contender, Courtney Weber (.333, 18 RBIs), the Trojans’ pitching ace who played some infield last season when she wasn’t on the mound.
“She’s got a lot of speed, good judgment and she’ll lay out to catch a ball, too,” Sinclair said. “That’s a part of Courtney people haven’t seen. I’ve seen it, and she’s exciting to watch out there.”
Pitching will be Weber’s primary role. Last season she threw a little more than 60 percent of the innings (99.67), posting a 2.32 ERA while striking out 90 and walking 27 on the way to a 14-3 record.
“Courtney’s working hard,” Sinclair said. “She’s adding another pitch this year and getting a lot more comfortable with throwing a variety.”
The loss of Gottsch has Sinclair looking for a new No. 2.
“Courtney throws well, but we can’t put everything on Courtney—and I don’t think Courtney wants it all on her,” Sinclair said. “Tena Loewen pitched some in the summer with us just to see where she was at. She has come on strong in the week that she’s been throwing.”
Sinclair said her initial plan is to start Weber in Game 1 and Loewen, a sophomore, in Game 2, then see how things go.
“The goal I gave Tena first off was, let’s make it through the batting order without them scoring,” Sinclair said. “If we need to switch out, we can bring Courtney back in.
“But Tena’s throwing hard enough and well enough that she may throw that (entire) second game. I just don’t know yet.”
Around the infield
Loewen (.465, 18 RBIs), received all-state attention for her infield play last season, as did shortstop Stephanie Sanders, the team leader in batting (.560), hits (47) and RBIs (35).
These two firm up the middle of an infield that is already strong. Sammy Koons (.298, 21 RBIs) returns at first base and Allie Faul (.227, 11 RBIs), the team’s only other senior, is behind the plate after stepping into the position last season with limited experience.
Vying to fill the void at third base created by the graduation of Heinrichs are sophomore Erin Loewen, who saw limited action last year as a freshman, and Danea Bina, a freshman this year. Both appear more than able to hold their own.
What Sinclair likes is that her infield players are interchangeable at most positions.
“I just call it my infield because those girls know we’ll need to interchange,” she said. “If Tena’s on the mound, somebody else has to step in and play her position. They don’t own a position.
“That’s the difference with this team right now. Every day they practice their potential spots.”
Sinclair likes what she has seen so far.
“I’ve told my infielders if we don’t have the best infield in Kansas, then I don’t know who does—if they play defense the way they can.”
Strengths and weaknesses
For as strong as the defense is, the team’s key strength may be hitting. Last season they batted .369 as a team.
“Our batting’s been strong,” Sinclair said about early practices. “We had Franny win two games for us with game-winning hits (last season). Who’s going to step up if we need that? That’s what I’m looking for.”
If the team had a weakness last season, it might have been being too aggressive on the base paths.
“We get greedy,” Sinclair said. “We just have to know our limits and not try to stretch something out. Part of that is sometimes I get a little greedy (as third-base coach). I think we can get an extra base out of this when we can’t.”
As for the league, Sinclair is expecting stiff competition.
Referring to last season’s accomplishment, Sinclair said, “I’d be shocked if we’d be 19-1 at the end of the regular season—just because, like baseball, our league is tough. But we’re going to get better playing in our league.”
That starts Day 1 when the Trojans travel to Pratt March 29 for their inaugural doubleheader in the new Central Kansas League.
“I feel that some of the teams in our league are just as good as what we saw at state,” Sinclair said. “I’m sure Pratt will be tough. Haven’s tough. Hesston has a good freshman class. Smoky Valley has (all-league pitcher Erin) Stockman coming back as a sophomore.
“Everybody we come across is going to have somebody there who can give us fits if we let them.”
The Trojans’ first home doubleheader will be Friday when Nickerson comes to the Sports Complex. The first game begins at 4:30 p.m.