A large veteran core combined with a promising group of talented freshmen should make Hillsboro softball a formidable team again this season.
The Trojans, coming off a 19-5 season and a third consecutive appearance at state, return six starters, all of whom received all-league recognition in 2011.
“I’m really excited for the seniors,” said Stephanie Sinclair, who is 98-37 through six seasons as the Trojan head coach. “They definitely want to be a dominating team, and these kids work really hard.”
The Trojans knew graduation would take away Taylor Nikkel, a three-time first-team all-league outfielder, and Allie Faul, a second-team catcher. But no one expected the loss of Tena Loewen, a first-team utility selection as a sophomore infielder and pitcher. A .500 hitter in 2011, Loewen injured her knee in basketball and will not see action this season.
Despite the vacancies, Sinclair is confident she has the athletes to be successful.
“We’ll have to pick up the hitting,” she said. “Of course, both (Nikkel and Loewen) were really quick, and picked up a lot of extra bases. We’ve talked about that: How can we manufacture that same batting average (.353 as a team) and where are we going to get our base running?
“The younger kids who may step into some roles know they’ll need to do a good job.”
Pitchers and cathers
Defensively, senior Courtney Weber returns as Hillsboro’s No. 1 pitcher after posting a 14-3 record and a 2.07 earned-run average last season.
“Courtney comes back with a lot of confidence, a lot of time on the mound, and I give her a lot of credit for that,” Sinclair said. “She’s going to be the one we look to here in the beginning.”
But Weber won’t have to carry the full load. With the loss of Loewen (4-2, 1.93 ERA), Sinclair is looking for relief help from two freshmen, Allison Weber and Julie Sinclair.
“What Allison and Julie bring that’s different from Courtney is that they both throw curve balls,” the Trojan coach said. “It’s nice to add another pitch to confuse people.
“Allison is a right-handed pitcher like her sister and has similar speed. Julie is left-handed. She doesn’t throw with quite as much speed as those two, but throws with more speed on drop balls and curve balls.”
At the other end of the battery, Sinclair is looking at two more freshmen, Bradli Nowak and Madison Klein to fill the opening at catcher.
“We’ll have a young catcher, but they both come with a lot of background in catching,” Sinclair said. “They’ve played on good summer teams, both work very hard and bat well.”
Sophomore Danae Bina and senior Stephanie Sanders also have catching experience, but are likely to remain infielders.
“We’ve got backup if we need it,” Sinclair said.
Around the infield, senior Sammy Koons (.413, 25 RBIs), a first-team all-league selection at first base a year ago, will anchor the infield there again this season.
Aside from the absence of Loewen, the middle infield will feature some familiar faces. Sanders (.437, 28 RBIs) and Bina (.441, 21 RBIs) are all but interchangeable at second base or shortstop. Sanders was a first-team all-league pick at second in 2011 and Bina was a second-team selection at third.
Courtney Weber (.355, 10 RBIs) will see some time at second base when she isn’t pitching, and freshmen Kennedy Lucero, a speedster on the bases, and Lexi Kruse are in the mix as well. Nowak is another option at shortstop behind Sanders or Bina.
Returning to third base after an arm injury sidelined her almost all of last season is junior Erin Loewen. Pushing her at that position are Nowak and Klein, who have worked out there during the preseason.
In the outfield, second-team all-leaguer Krista Reimer (.455, 23 RBIs) will return in left field and Amy Bartel (.260, 12 RBIs), who received honorable mention, will be back in right field to start the season.
Allison Weber is the leading candidate to fill the void in centerfield created by Nikkel’s departure.
“She’s quick and she reads the ball well,” Sinclair said.
Julie Sinclair and fellow freshman Emily Jost have been working well in the outfield, too, and could find time there as situations warrant it.
“What’s nice is that when we have a lot of returning people, joined with (young) kids who have played a lot, the older ones are accepting because they know the kids have played,” Sinclair said. “They want to make the best team possible on the field.”
For all the team’s strengths, Sinclair does have some concerns as the opener approaches.
“I’m still concerned about us making everything click in the infield,” she said. “I worry if we will produce enough bases. I don’t know our batting order, and I don’t know who’s my best lead-off (hitter).”
Even with those questions, the Trojans expect to compete for a league title. Their top competition likely will be Pratt, last year’s champion, plus Haven and Smoky Valley—all 4A schools.
“A lot of the girls look at the teams that are at the top of our league and want to beat them,” Sinclair said. “I don’t know if we can come out of our league undefeated. It would take a pretty special season to do that.
“But if we can learn from mistakes, if we can learn from losses—if those come along the way—it can make us better for the playoffs and a possible state berth. That would be excellent for our team.”
Hillsboro will begin the season with two doubleheaders on the road. The first one will be Friday at Nickerson, followed by a trip to Hesston the following Tuesday.
Hillsboro’s home opener will be Friday, April 5, with a doubleheader against Kingman. The first game will begin at 4:30 p.m. in the Sports Complex.