Pitching key for Trojans

Hillsboro softball returns five seniors and letter-winners this spring. From left are Mesa Merrell, Cheyenne Bernhardt, Sam Moss, Taylor Helmer and Sarah Jost. The Trojans’ first home doubleheader is scheduled for April 7 versus Hoisington.Hillsboro softball coach Stephanie Sinclair is looking to build on the talent of two returning all-league players to improve on last year’s 6-16 record.

Sinclair begins her 12th season as head coach with a 192-66 record, but is aiming for at least a .500 record after coming off her first losing season in 2016.

A significant factor in a Trojan turnaround will be the pitching of junior Tay­lor Helmer, who came on strong late in her first season on the mound to receive all-league honorable mention from the Central Kansas League coaches.

“I’m really encouraged by Taylor and that she’s thrown in the off-season,” Sinclair said. “She has been very consistent, is ahead a lot in the count and is able to throw curveballs. She may not be as confident in that pitch yet, but she’s getting some movement when she throws them hard.

“Her fastballs, she’s very consistent inside and outside now,” Sinclair added. “She has her own style of changeups—it’s not a spinning change-up, but she has pretty good control of that too. We’ve tried different things, but she’s doing the things that work best for her.

“I’m really encouraged by that.”

A year ago, Helmer threw 891⁄3 innings and finished with an earned-run average of 6.27. If Helmer needs some relief, sophomore Cheyenne Bernhardt and freshman Trinity Marler are the two leading candidates.

Sinclair’s other returning all-leaguer is Sarah Jost, who was a second-team pick for the outfield in 2016.

Sinclair said Jost has been a leader in the outfield so far this spring.

“She’s actually really good at teaching (outfielders), too,” Sinclair said. “You can see that in her mind she knows exactly what’s supposed to happen, and can actually relay that to people.

“I like that part of Sarah, that she’s not afraid to gently help people in her own way. She’s gifted that way.”

One of Sinclair’s challenges, though, is to develop confident outfielders to flank Jost in right field and left field.

“She needs those people beside her that want it, and I’m trying to get that out of a freshman or maybe some sophomores,” she said.

With a roster of only 12 players, Sinclair will have limited options to fill the voids. Potential candidates are freshmen Ava Weisbeck, Trinity Marler and Callie Arnold and sophomore Katie Evans.

Sinclair said she’s more comfortable with the progress of her infield.

“I think our infield is looking pretty strong,” she said.

In the preseason, Sinclair has Bernhardt and Saman­tha Moss as her top prospects behind the plate, but Moss will likely see time at second base, third base or shortstop over the course of the season.

“I would like (Moss) in the infield, and I’d like Cheyenne to catch if at all possible, because I think I’m playing everybody to their strengths,” Sinclair said.

Mesa Merrell, the only senior on the roster, will anchor the shortstop position as the season gets underway. Ellian Weisbeck, a 6-foot junior, will give Trojan infielders an inviting target at first base.

“We have a few kids on our team who can step in at different places,” Sinclair said.

Another question mark for the team will be the potency of their bats.

“Mesa looks good at the plate and Sam’s picking it up a little bit,” Sinclair said.

Merrell hit .314 last season with 22 hits and 12 runs batted in. Jost collected 23 hits and batted .338. Moss contributed 16 hits with an average of .271.

“We’re really working on how to use our legs more and the place where your hands should be in comparison with the ball—keeping hands inside the ball,” she added. “Some kids want to wrap around the ball, and everything is going to be a ground out to third or short.

“It’s the little things, the basic mechanics of hitting is really where we’re at with about half of the team.”

As for the league, Sinclair is expecting the schools that led the league last year will be favorites to do so again this season. Haven, Lyons and Pratt qualified for their respective state tournaments in 2016, but Sterling had the best season record at 20-2.

For her Trojans to reach the upper half of the league, they’ll need to develop the inner drive to improve and compete.

“I don’t know how to put the drive in somebody—I have the drive, but can I give them the drive?” Sinclair said.

“There are kids who want everybody to perform, but you can’t jump inside that person and perform,” she added. “I don’t want to put pressure on people, but I want people to know we want to win.”

The Trojans were scheduled to open the season March 28 with a doubleheader at Nickerson.

The team will travel to Larned April 4 before making its home debut April 7 when Hoising­ton comes to the Sports Complex with a 4 p.m. start time.

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