HHS softball features experience, depth in 2005

ORIGINALLY WRITTEN DON RATZLAFF
If you go strictly by the numbers, Hillsboro softball is gearing up for a big season.

When practice officially started earlier this month, Coach Carolyn Long greeted the largest squad in the program’s eight-year history (30 players) and the most seniors (nine).

What’s more, Long lost only one graduating senior from a squad that finished 15-5 last season and registered the program’s second-best statistical year in batting (.312), hits (176), slugging (.399) and scoring (9.6 runs per game), and third-best marks in fielding (.879) and on-base percentage (.410).

But the numbers Long likes most are the years of experience most of her players have in the sport.

“We bring in 13 freshmen, but they’re not 13 freshman who say, ‘Hey, I’d like to try this sport,'” Long said. “They’re freshmen who have played for a long time.

“Our seniors, of course, have played for four years. Our sophomores and juniors, because those classes are so small (four in each), those girls have gotten to play in our program somewhere, whether it be varsity or JV.

“If we had to play today, I could put out nine girls who have had a ton of experience playing softball, regardless of what age they are.”

That said, Long is looking to her seniors to form a strong foundation for the team.

“We have a very strong nucleus with our seniors, and are returning post-season honors with some of them. We’re looking for good things.”

Even though Long lost only one senior from last season-Danielle Goossen, an honorable-mention pick at third base-Long said very few starting positions are nailed down yet.

It’s pretty safe to say, though, that the Trojans’ four returning all-league honorees will find a spot in the lineup.

On that list is first-team catcher Emily Ratzlaff, who batted a school-record .500 (28-56) last season as a junior and also led the team in runs batted in (21), slugging (.750) and on-base percentage (.622).

Another key senior is Amy Duerksen, an honorable-mention pick at shortstop. In addition to her prowess in the field (.877), Duerksen led the team in runs scored (31), was second in batting (.403) and third in slugging (.508) and on-base percentage (.432).

Returning to the mound for the Trojans will be senior Marissa Diener, a first-team all-league pick. The right-hander posted a 9-3 mark a year ago with an earned-run average of 3.94. She struck out 80 batters and walked only 25 in 71 innings.

Last season, Diener shared primary pitching duties with Laura Lindsay, who was selected to the all-league first-team last season as a utility player. Lindsay patrolled the outfield when she wasn’t pitching.

On the mound, the junior posted a 5-2 mark with an ERA of 4.33. She struck out 37 batters and walked 10 in 42 innings. At the plate, Lindsay batted .328 and was second in RBIs (16) and third in on-base percentage (.446).

Long said she expects to start senior Sara Hamm again at first base, where she posted a .959 fielding average. At the plate, Hamm hit .242 with 12 RBIs.

The other starting positions are yet to be determined, according to Long.

Certainly a strong candidate for a spot in the outfield is senior Erin Wiebe, who stepped up last season with a .333 batting average and eight RBIs. She finished with a slugging percentage of .351 and an on-base percentage of .406.

Long said several girls are working for playing time at second base, and Goossen’s vacancy at third may be filled by a freshman, even though it’s a challenging position.

“Right now, we don’t have very many girls who want to step up and play third base,” she said. “It’s a hard position to play and you’re so close to the batter. We’ve had some freshmen working at that. If that’s what is, that’s what it is.”

Given her team’s top-to-bottom playing experience, Long said she told her athletes from the start that varsity playing time will come down to the players can produce for the team, regardless of age.

“In my mind, I can’t justify not playing them just because they’re freshmen,” she said. “My seniors have been loyal to the program for four years and I will give them a shot. But if they’re not getting the job done, I don’t have a problem playing whoever performs in the best interest of the program.”

With Diener and Lindsay returning, the Trojans appear to be solid in the pitching department, but Long has additional depth this season.

Wiebe threw seven innings last season in her only start of the season. Also in the wings are freshmen Jenesa Klose and Stephanie Abbott.

“This is the most pitchers we’ve ever had throwing,” Long said.

Even with her team’s production on offense last season, Long feels defense may be her team’s primary strength.

“Defensively, we should be pretty strong just because of the experience they have,” she said. “Offensively, it’s hard to say, strength-wise, because we haven’t hit against live pitchers or anything like that yet.”

Long sees a balanced race this season in a fast-maturing Mid-Central Activities Association, with Wichita Collegiate being the preseason favorite.

“Three years ago, there were a lot of programs that were just starting, and they definitely had weaknesses in some areas,” she said. “Now, we’re at a point where people aren’t just starting out anymore. They’re experienced-and there’s a lot more (athletes) playing in the summer now, too.

“They’ll all be tough,” she added. “Softball can be such a roller-coaster type of game, too. Sometimes it’s the luck of the day.”

The addition of Marion and Hoisington to the MCAA won’t make the schedule any easier.

“Marion has consolidated with Peabody, so they’ll bring in a strong team, having both of their schools together,” Long said.

The Trojans will find out how good Hoisington is when they make the long trip there April 1 for their season opener.

With a week off for spring break, and relatively few practices on either side of it, Long isn’t sure what to expect in that opener.

“I’m sure our weaknesses will be exposed,” she said. “Working out who goes where, and some of our kinks, will probably come in those first few games because of the lack of opportunities we’ve had to get together.”

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