HHS softball returns most players from first state team

In the afterglow of the program?s first-ever appearance at state last season, it may be surprising to recall that the Hillsboro High School softball team finished the 2009 regular season with a so-so 10-10 record.

With that freshman-laden, history-making squad returning almost en masse, last year?s record is motivation enough to work toward improvement this season, according to coach Stephanie Sinclair.

And it?s not just about statistics.

?I know without even talking about it with these kids, they want to win every game,? Sinclair said. ?These kids love softball. They love being outside?you can cut loose a little more out there. But they work hard and have fun while they?re doing it.?

Eight letter-winners

The team returns eight-letter winners from the team that finished 13-11. The only key contributor missing is Bri Loewen, who was a second-team all-league selection last year as a freshman.

But Sinclair believes that key void will be filled satisfactorily by Allie Faul, an athletic junior who played the position as a youth but has been away from the game for a couple of years.

?She?s learned more than anybody else out there because she?s learned to play that position,? Sinclair said. ?She is constantly critiquing herself, making sure she?s blocking a ball right, making throw-downs (to second base). Her arm speed has improved in three days (of practice).?

Pitching

Part of Faul?s assignment is to handle the Trojans? two returning sophomore pitchers, Courtney Weber (7-3 record, 4.44 earned-run average, 41 strikeouts, 15 walks) and Franny Gottsch (6-8, 4.49 ERA, 56 strikeouts, 28 walks).

The two right-handers have complementary styles?Weber relying more on speed while Gottsch changes speeds to keep hitters off-balance. Sinclair is looking for improvement from both girls to meet her goal of lowering last year?s team ERA of 4.47.

?Courtney?s worked a lot in the off-season to develop more variety in her pitches, and has added some new ones,? Sinclair said. ?Franny?s still pretty consistent, and we?ve actually added a pitch recently?and she can throw it pretty well.?

Pitch variety is the key, she added. ?They?re not going to throw just fastballs. We?re going to keep people on their toes.?

Sinclair will continue the strategy of using each pitcher for one game of a doubleheader.

?They?re so different from each other that it?s a huge advantage to us (to alternate them),? she said.

Lineup options

With the entire lineup returning from a year ago, except for catcher, you might think Sinclair could pencil in her starting lineup even before the first practice.

That hasn?t been the case, thanks to the infusion of some talented freshmen players.

?When you add new kids to the picture who bring talent to the team, that pushes everybody?and that?s a good thing,? Sinclair said.

At least one of those freshmen, Tena Loewen, may crack the starting lineup?someplace.

?She brings infield and outfield experience to the team and lots of quickness,? Sinclair said.

Only one starting position beyond catcher has been secured for a single player. Junior Taylor Nikkel will anchor the outfield in center, for which she received first-team all-league recognition a year ago. Aside from her speed and reliable glove on defense, Nikkel batted .358, stole 17 bases and scored a team-high 25 runs.

With talent depth to create a variety of effective lineups, Sinclair mentioned four other returning players, all sophomores, who may see time in the other two outfield spots.

Two of them, Amy Bartel (.361, 8 RBI) and Krista Reimer (.343, 19 RBI), saw significant time there last year.

The other two, Steph Sanders (.346, 20 RBI, 24 runs) and Sammy Koons (.342, 16 RBI, 18 runs), played mostly at shortstop and first base, respectively, and will do so again this year.

Depending on the lineup, Loewen could see time at shortstop or third, and senior Tara Heinrichs (.217, 8 RBI, 11 runs) could move to first base when she?s not playing at her traditional third-base position.

The remaining infield spot, second base, is a lock; it again will be shared by Weber (.241, 16 RBI, 18 runs) and Gottsch (.463, 14 RBI, 23 runs), determined by which one is pitching. Com?bined, they committed only one error there last season.

Figuring out the lineup options is Sinclair?s biggest challenge in the preseason. She realizes her players may not appreciate the advantages of flexibility as much as she does.

?I know they like to take ownership in a (single) position, and I will keep that in mind,? Sinclair said.

An additional reason for multiple lineup options is to accommodate some junior varsity games. With a total roster of 18 players, at least one player from the varsity will have to shift to JV to complete a lineup.

?I do want the JV kids to get some games,? she said.

Season outlook

Sinclair said the team hasn?t set a goal for their season record, but obviously hopes to make a return trip to Manhattan in the post-season.

?I do think we?ll have a better record this season,? Sinclair said.

The team intends to improve its 10-10 mark in the Mid-Central Activities Associa?tion and make a title run in the league?s final season.

But the Trojans will be challenged by the teams that finished ahead of them: Halstead (19-1), Nickerson (16-2), Haven (16-2) and Hesston (11-7).

To gain ground, Sinclair aims to improve the margin between runs scored and runs allowed. Last season the Trojans batted a solid .326 as a team with opposing pitching posting an ERA of 4.62. But opposing batters hit .308 against Trojan pitching with a team ERA of 4.47.

?Our ERA was nothing to talk about, but we were putting up a lot of runs against people, too, so that kind of balanced it out,? Sinclair said. ?But if you?re only .500, that ERA needs to go down.?

She expects her young team to be stronger defensively and more aggressive on the base paths this year.

?We stole 11 more bases than our opponents last year, and I would guess that gap might get wider,? she said. ?We threw out maybe one runner (trying to steal), but part of that was our inexperience in the infield. The kids know the game, but got a little shook on plays like that.

?I expect something totally different out of my fielders this year as far as making those plays.?

While Sinclair expects her team to be improved, she realizes other teams will be, too. The Trojans open the season at home tomorrow (April 1) against Wichita Collegiate, who was 5-13 last year but split their doubleheader with HHS.

?Their coach is back for his second year, so I?m sure they?re building their program,? she said.

The Thursday?s doubleheader at the Sports Complex will begin at 4:30 p.m.

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