For the first time in school history, a Hillsboro softball team began preseason practices carrying the mantle of ?defending state champions.?
Guess what? It doesn?t make much difference, according to coach Stephanie Sinclair.
?Every year I feel we start over,? she said. ?My husband sometimes has to remind me that we?re the defending state champions. I just want our kids to be good at what they?re doing.?
Gone are last year?s core of five seniors who contributed to four consecutive regional titles, and ultimately the state crown.
But the shelf this spring is hardly empty for Sinclair.
Leading the list of returning players is Danae Bina, who was selected as a first-team pick for both the Central Kansas League and Class 3A as a sophomore. Bina led the Trojans with a .472 batting average and 22 stolen bases, and was second in runs batted in (30) and runs scored (36).
Also returning is Allison Weber, who as a freshman was a first-team all-league pick for the outfield, then was an all-state selection as a pitcher. A ?slap? hitter, Weber batted .424 and scored 30 runs for the Trojans. On the mound, she was 14-2 with an earned-run average of 3.16 for the season and 1.55 for the state tournament.
Weber leads a new ?core? class of six sophomores. Two received all-league honorable mention last season: Bradli Nowak (.353, 30 hits, 24 RBIs) at catcher and Madison Klein (.300, 21 hits and 11 RBIs) as a utility player.
One returning standout didn?t even play last year. Senior Tena Loewen, who missed her junior season because of a knee injury in basketball, was a first-team all-league player in softball her first two high school seasons.
As a sophomore, Loewen led the Trojans in hitting (.500), hits (43) and stolen bases (21) and was second in RBIs (25).
?We definitely have three of the top hitters in the league coming back in Danae, Allison and Tena from the previous year,? Sinclair said.
The competition for starting roles this season is brisk. Bina is a fixture at shortstop. Weber will be the team?s lead pitcher, but can play in the infield or outfield when she?s not on the mound.
Loewen, a strong infielder and pitcher her first two seasons, is likely to make her home in center field, a key spot in the defense.
?It was kind of her idea, but I like it,? Sinclair said. ?If it works, that will be great.?
Meanwhile, Nowak and Klein are all but interchangeable at catcher or second base.
?Both have been working hard in the catcher position,? Sinclair said. ?I can?t say that either one of them has a lead on the other. They both do a good job, and they push each other.?
Senior Erin Loewen, who came into her own with an outstanding defensive performance at state, will be back at third base this season.
?We look to build off of that (experience),? Sinclair said. ?She?s been getting some nice hits in practice, too. She didn?t hit much for us last year (one at-bat) primarily because she had some ankle issues and we didn?t want her running and sliding.
?She?s pretty much over that now, and is guaranteeing me she?s not going to get hurt.?
Who will fill the void at first base created by the graduation of all-state performer Sammy Koons is still a question.
Weber and classmate Julie Sinclair, who also pitches, are the leading candidates.
?With the way we?re set up right now, Julie may be at first when Allison is pitching, and Allison may be at first when Julie?s pitching,? coach Sinclair said. ?We have not had another girl working there other than a freshman, but she?s not quite ready yet.?
Meanwhile, several candidates are in the running to flank Loewen in the outfield. Klein has summer-ball experience there, but junior Kalie Siebert, sophomores Emily Jost and Kennedy Lucero and freshman Shannon Heiser are in the mix.
Jost and Lucero return with the most game experience. Jost hit .313 in 16 at-bats while Lucero primarily stepped in as a pinch runner and was 16-for-16 as a base stealer.
?We have other freshmen who don?t have as much experience, and we?re trying to give them experience in practice and get them ready for when we can get them in,? Sinclair said.
A great advantage?and challenge?for coaches Sinclair and Jill Hein is that their roster gives them a lot of lineup options.
?We have what I call a lot of utility players?a lot of kids who can step up and play different positions and can do a really good job,? Sinclair said. ?In the past, maybe I didn?t have outfielders who could come in to the infield. But now I feel I have two or three kids who could go either way.?
While competition for positions makes for energized practices, it has the potential to lead to team chemistry issues.
?They?ve got to play together and be supportive of each other?and be supportive of the ideas that we have as coaches,? Sinclair said of her players.
After compiling a 121-40 record through eight seasons as head coach, Sinclair isn?t expecting her talented squad to breeze through her ninth season.
?Our league is very tough,? she said. ?Everybody would like to win every game, but sometimes I don?t think you?re the best if you win every game. I?m not saying you have to have a loss along the way, but you have to have challenges. We?ll have plenty of challenges, I believe.?
Sinclair said Haven is ?loaded? this season. Talented pitchers returning at Smoky Valley, Hesston, Pratt and Sterling could cause problems if her hitters aren?t on their game.
Beyond league, Haven could provide challenges in the post-season now that the Wildcats have moved from 4A to 3A.
?Haven?s always worried about playing us and we?re worried about playing them,? Sinclair said. ?I don?t know if worry is the right word, but we know if we?re in the same regional both teams are tough.?
Regional assignments haven?t been announced, but regardless of the competition, Sinclair and her Trojans have a clear post-season goal.
?I think we have all the hopes of making it back to state, and I think we have all the right talents?if we can put it together correctly.?
The Trojans are scheduled to open the 2013 season April 2 with a home doubleheader against Nickerson at the Sports Complex. The first game will begin at 4:30 p.m.