Trojans building team around four letter winners

ORIGINALLY WRITTEN DON RATZLAFF
Even with openings in five of the nine starting positions on this year’s softball team and only four letter winners returning, coach Carolyn Long doesn’t think of the 2002 season as a “rebuilding year.”

“A lot of people have asked if this is a rebuilding year,” said the fifth-year coach. “I don’t know if I would say rebuilding. I’d say we’re building on a strong nucleus of seniors and letter winners. With the talent surrounding them, I think it’s more building on what we have than totally rebuilding.”

Gone from last season’s 17-5 team are five seniors, including Dionne Jost, a first-team All-MCAA selection at second base, who batted a team-leading .438 last season, and Melissa Deckert, a four-year starter in center field.

In addition, two players who started as juniors, Jill Hein in left field and Amber Hefley at shortstop, both decided not to play as seniors.

Hein was a first-team All-MCAA selection in the outfield and hit .392 with a team-leading eight home runs and 29 runs batted in. Hefley hit .329 with 26 RBIs.

Long, though, prefers to focus on her returning seniors-pitcher Holly Lindsay, catcher Julie Wall, first baseman Emily Donahue and outfielder Robyn Penner. Also returning after a two-year absence is senior Shelby Estelle, who likely will play in the infield.

“Shelby played her freshman year and did a good job,” Long said. “She played a lot growing up, which has helped her to just step in and be able to do what she’d done to this point.”

The best news for the Trojans is the return of their battery, Lindsay and Wall. Lindsay, who figured in all but two of the Trojans’ decisions last season, was 15-5 with a 2.11 earned-run average and 100 strikeouts.

Wall, meanwhile, has been Lindsay’s personal catcher even before they began their high school careers.

“Holly and Julie have played together probably since they learned to walk,” Long said. “They’re best of friends on the field and probably off the field as well.

“That’s a combination that we are very fortunate to have. They’ve played for four years (in high school), and Holly basically threw both games last year as much as she could. There were times when we worked some others in, but that’s definitely a critical part of our game.

“Of the four positions we have returning, if there’s two that I’m most glad about, it’s the pitcher-catcher combination. It’s so critical in high school, especially.”

Donahue, meanwhile, is a stalwart at first base, where her defensive skills earned her all-state honors as a sophomore and all-league honorable mention as a junior.

“We’ve probably taken her for granted because we’ve had a good first baseman for four years now,” Long said. “She’s awesome there. She has a good glove and picks up a lot.”

Meanwhile, this will be Penner’s third year as a starter in the outfield. The first two seasons, she played in right. This year she’ll shift to center.

“She’s got good speed and probably is going to have to be the captain of the outfield because whoever is out there with her is going to be new,” Long said.

Joining the five seniors are 24 players-five juniors, four sophomores and 15 freshmen-with minimal varsity experience but encouraging raw talent.

“We’ve just been working real hard with the new kids we have and the returners we have to see who can step in and get the job done,” Long said. “It’s something that could change as the season goes.

“We’re only going to have nine practices before our first game,” she added. “So right now we’ve really concentrated on defense-to be able to field a team of nine and feel we have the positions covered as best we can for right now.”

She said having five starting positions up for grabs has provided motivation for all her players.

“Whoever can get the job done is going to play there,” Long said. “I think they know they’re all continually pushing and competing with each other to earn those positions and to keep them. They know that just because they may start next Thursday (in the season opener) doesn’t mean they’re going to stay there.”

The level of excitement and commitment on her squad has Long enthused about the season.

“That’s one thing about this team-all 29 of them are working really hard,” she said. “They want to be out there. They’re excited to come to practice.”

She said her large freshman class is equally as focused.

“Those freshmen are very eager. I coached them in basketball, so I know how they are as far as wanting to play well and work hard and do what they can do to be a part of it. That’s been obvious in practice.”

She feels her seniors’ leadership, though, will be key to the team’s success.

“The seniors we have out have been great as far as being leaders,” Long said. “It helps when there’s 29 kids out and I can split up into groups and have a senior in each group. Because they’ve played for years-and not just in high school-they’re able to say the little things because they’ve heard it so much. They’re able to help out, too, because we (coaches) can’t get to everybody.”

Long said it was too early to identify players who might fill the holes in the Trojan lineup, but she said the criterion for doing so is clear and simple.

“I’ve told them it doesn’t matter to me if you’re a freshman or a senior-whoever is going to step in and get the job done is who we’re going to go with,” she said. “Some of these (younger) girls you can say, ‘We’re going to work with you on this position,’ and they’re athletic enough to where they’re going to learn it and they’re going to be good at it.”

Pitching depth will be the one luxury Long will enjoy this season. In addition to her ace, Lindsay, Long has some promising backup in juniors April Funk and Kara Wasemiller, and freshmen Marissa Diener and Erin Wiebe.

“Holly will pitch both (games in a doubleheader) unless I see one of those others come along,” Long said. “But if we need a change of speed, or if they’re just hitting off of her, I feel pretty comfortable with rotating some of those other girls in right now. It’s nice to have five of them working on it because that doesn’t happen often.”

Offense will be the Trojans’ biggest unknown as the team opens its season at Marion tomorrow afternoon.

“We have focused so much on defense, whether we’ve been inside or outside, to where we haven’t had a lot of time to work on our hitting,” Long said.

She does know this team has room to improve on both offense and defense.

“The only thing we can do is get better because everybody is in new positions,” Long said. “I know that I’ve stressed in years past that our goal is to get better every game, but this year it’s probably even more evident than it has been in years past-of finding one thing and getting better at it every day.

“We have tons of room to improve and get better because it’s a totally new makeup of a team. But the talent out there is incredible.”

Long isn’t sure how the MCAA will shape up this season. Even though state-qualifier Wichita Collegiate lost nine seniors, she expects the Spartans to be competitive again. She also things Haven and Nickerson will be contenders.

Long said her team’s opener against Marion will be no picnic, either.

“They are really coming on-in all sports,” Long said. “That’s going to be a tough first game for us. We’re going to have to play really well to win.”

Hillsboro will host its own regional this season. The other teams assigned there are Southeast of Saline, Hesston, Lyons and Marion.

For the past three seasons, Hillsboro has lost to Southeast of Saline in the regional championship game.

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