ORIGINALLY WRITTEN DON RATZLAFF
Coaches are looking for relatively young and inexperienced athletes to fill a gaping hole created by graduated seniors.
That familiar theme started in fall with volleyball, extended into winter with basketball and now carries into the softball season this spring at Hillsboro High School.
Gone for coach Carolyn Long are Holly Lindsay, a three-time all Mid-Central Activities Association pitcher, her longtime battery mate, Julie Wall, an honorable pick at catcher last season and the team’s leading hitter, as well as Emily Donahue, a two-time all-league pick at first base.
Toss in leadoff hitter and outfielder Robyn Penner and infielder/outfielder Shelby Estelle and you’ve got some major vacancies to be concerned about.
“For us to try to find somebody to fill those shoes is going to be pretty tough,” coach Carolyn Long admitted.
But unlike her counterparts in volleyball and basketball, Long does have a core of returning letter winners around which to build this year’s team.
Heading that list is Danielle Goossen, an honorable-mention selection at third base-even with a .167 batting average.
Joining her as returning starters are April Funk, a senior infielder who hit .257 a year ago, and a pair of sophomores, outfielder Emily Ratzlaff, who finished with the team’s third-highest average at .322 and tied for second in runs batted in with 15, and shortstop Amy Duerksen, who batted .269 with 15 RBIs.
Goossen, Duerksen and Funk are expected to find their place on the infield again, but Ratzlaff will make the move from center field to catcher, Long said.
“Right now, that’s where she’s been working and she’s doing a really good job,” Long said. “I was a little concerned toward the end of basketball season with her knees, because I know they gave her some problems. I was concerned whether she’d be able to do the continual up and down.
“But she’s expressed that’s where she’d like to work and has done a real good job with it.”
The key question facing Long and assistant coach Stephanie Sinclair, though, is who will be throwing to Ratzlaff? Pitcher is a make-or-break position on most softball teams, and last season Lindsay pitched 120 of the team’s 134 innings.
“I’ve been pretty pleased with the four girls who have been throwing for us,” Long said. “It’s definitely obvious to me that they’ve worked some on their own throughout the winter.”
Heading Long’s list is sophomore Marissa Diener, who threw the other 14 innings in 2002.
“Her speed has increased a lot from last year-and her accuracy, too-to where I think she’s been throwing quite a bit on her own,” Long said. “That’s definitely evident.”
Also throwing well in early-season practice are Funk, sophomore Erin Wiebe and freshman Laura Lindsay.
“It’ll be nice to have the four-pitcher rotation,” Long said. “We’ve never had that kind of depth before.”
Long said she isn’t sure whether the four pitchers will share time on the mound, or whether she’ll settle on one or two to carry the load and the others to offer relief.
“We’ll wait and see,” she said. “But it’s nice to be able to know there’s somebody else there if we need that. We may end up doing a rotation thing with them, it just depends.”
One thing Long does know is that her team will have to play more defense this season than they have had to the past couple of years with Lindsay’s dominant pitching.
“They’re throwing pretty good speed,” Long said about her pitchers, “but several of them throwing are down the middle, and (hitters) are going to be able to get a hold of those. We’re just going to have to be able to play defense and get those pitchers working the corners more.”
Long’s other primary concern is the vacancy at first base.
“It doesn’t matter how well we can stop balls and how well we can throw if we can’t find somebody to catch it at first,” she said.
Right now the position is wide open.
“Different people are rotating in and trying it out,” Long said. “If I had to start somebody tomorrow at first base, I’m not sure who it would be.”
Also wide open is Long’s entire outfield. Penner is gone with graduation, Ratzlaff is moving to catcher and right field was filled by a rotation of players during the course of last season.
“All positions are open, really,” Long said. “It’s not like any of them are secure.”
Joining the hunt for playing time are the team’s only other upperclassmen, senior Laci Frantz, who sat out last season, and junior Cierra Ediger.
Beyond that, Long is evaluating the skills of 15 sophomores and three freshmen.
The team’s youth presents some obvious challenges, but also a positive dimension, Long said.
“We’ll be up and down a little at first, just trying to figure who’s going to work where,” said the Trojan coach, now in her fifth year. “But their attitudes have been great.
“These kids work hard-I can tell they want to be there, and that’s something some coaches have to deal with but we don’t. They were ready to start before we had our first practice.”
She says she sees a lot of potential in her young players.
“They always say you’re only as strong as your weakest player,” Long said. “Well, probably this year more than any year in the past, our weakest player is probably better than our weakest player from previous years.
“It’s nice to be able to put everybody in a drill at some point and not feel like nobody’s getting better.”
Looking to league play, Long sees Wichita Collegiate as the team to beat.
“Collegiate’s always strong,” she said. “They’re always one of the strongest teams we play.”
The rest of the league is unpredictable, she added, but she knows her team will be challenged.
“Most people haven’t lost a whole lot (of players),” she said. “We’ve probably lost more than anybody- which I think others are probably glad about. It will be interesting to see.”
Beyond league, the good news/ bad news is that the Trojans have been assigned to the regional hosted by Collegiate after four straight years of playing-and losing to-Southeast of Saline in the regional finals.
“It will be nice to go somewhere else,” Long said. “It seems like we have such a block against Southeast. But Collegiate will be a tough team for us, too.”
With only one returning starter who hit above .300 last season, offense has been an early emphasis in practice.
“We’re going to work on hitting more than we have in years past-we need to,” she said. “They need to be taking 400 to 500 swings a day, whether it be in stations with our dow rods, or off the machine, or live, or soft toss-we just have to be able to hit the ball. That’s always been a concern.”
She said it’s too early to know what strengths will emerge.
“We’re just so new at everything,” she said. “The senior class we graduated has been such a significant part of our program for four years. It wasn’t just their junior and senior years, it’s been all four years. Those kids helped make the program what it is.
“This year, without them, it’s going to be different and I’m anxious to see what our strengths are and what are weaknesses are. We’re filling so many shoes. I guess we’ll see as we get more into the season.”
That season begins April 4 with home games at the Sports Complex against Marion.
“They’ve been strong the last couple of years, and they didn’t lose their pitcher-or hardly anyone else,” Long said. “They’re going to be a tough game for us right off, but that will be good for us.”
Long said she realizes it takes a while for young players to find their stride-and that will require patience.
“They’re still young, and we expect so much out of them,” she said. “Sometimes we just need to stop and think-a lot of those kids are sophomores. They’re still young and they’re having to step in whatever sport they’ve played this year and be experienced upperclassmen-and they’re not.
“It’s through the course of the season that they become that.”