With all but one starter returning from the Class 2-1A state runner-up team, it?s safe to say Hillsboro softball coach Stephanie Sin?clair is looking for continued success this season.
And so are the players.
?They have goals,? said Sin?clair, who begins her 10th year as head coach with a 162-48 record. ?They want to compete no matter where we?re at. Some of the younger ones want to go to state. Almost everybody says get better and work together.?
There?s good reason to think the Trojans could challenge for a state title again this season?even though Hillsboro returns to Class 3A, and the team?s one departed starter, Danae Bina, was a first-team all-state shortstop who hit .585 with a slugging percentage of .927 and had leadership skills to match.
Optimism is rooted in a core group of six solid senior starters: Madison Klein, Allison Weber, Julie Sin?clair, Emily Jost, Kennedy Lucero and Bradli Nowak.
?The core of them, plus Shannon (Heiser, junior), started coach pitch together when they were 7 and 8,? coach Sinclair said. ?They started out learning fundamentals and learning how to be a team.?
Five of the six seniors earned all-state honors a year ago: Sinclair as a pitcher, Nowak at catcher, Jost as an outfielder, Klein as a designated player and Allison Weber as a utility player.
?We definitely have a pretty special group in the senior class,? coach Sinclair said.
One of the things that make the seniors special is their versatility, which starts on the pitching mound.
The Trojans? two aces are Julie Sinclair, a left-hander, and Weber, a right-hander.
Sinclair caught fire in the second half of last season, finishing with a 13-0 record and an earned-run average of 0.58. She struck out a school record 17 batters in the regional finals.
Weber, meanwhile, posted a 9-3 record with an ERA of 2.08.
?I can see them splitting time pretty evenly,? their coach said. With one lefty and one righty, batters will have to adjust to different deliveries and ball movement over the course of a doubleheader.
When one of the aces is pitching, the other likely will be contributing in the field. Sinclair plays first base and could see time in the outfield. Weber played mostly infield last season but is looking for some time in the outfield as well.
?I can move her anywhere I want to move her because of her speed, her confidence, her calmness,? the coach said about Weber, who is a four-time state qualifier in tennis.
Anchoring the team at home plate are another versatile duo. Nowak and Klein split time there and at second base last season. Nowak received more of the formal recognition for her catching skills, but both girls have signed to play that position in college next year.
And both are huge hitters. Klein provided the team?s second highest batting average (.571) and second-most runs batted in (44). Nowak hit .420 and led the team in RBIs (47) and home runs (7).
The two remaining seniors, Jost and Lucero, are mainstays in the outfield. Aside from being good fielders with accurate arms, Jost batted .449 with 17 RBIs while Lucero hit .362 with 16 RBIs and brings good speed to the base paths.
?Emily is an excellent outfielder and has taken off from there,? Sinclair said. ?Kennedy is doing an awesome job in the outfield. I hope she can get recognized with some honors this year.?
Beyond the senior core, Sinclair has talented players who can fill multiple spots in the lineup. Heading that list is Heiser, who received all-league honorable mention at first base in 2014. This season, she is the leading candidate to fill the vacancy at shortstop.
?I really feel like Shannon has wanted to step into that position,? Sinclair said. ?Every single girl on the team said nobody is Danae, and I said I don?t expect anybody to be Danae. But Shannon stepped up, owned that and wanted it.
?She?s got the personality and she?s got the perseverance within her (to play the position),? Sinclair added.
At the plate, Heiser hit .301 with 18 RBIs.
The bigger question mark for the Trojans is who will fill the void at third base, where Weber and Heiser shared significant time a year ago.
?We?re working with Savannah Unruh, Mesa Merrell and Kalen Moss,? Sinclair said. ?It?s still up in the air. They?re all working hard. I couldn?t ask for kids to work harder. There?s some days they?re shaky, there?s some days they?re on top of it.?
Unruh and Merrell are sophomores and Moss is a junior. Unruh, the most game-experienced of the three, played in 22 games last season, mostly in the outfield. She hit .250 in 52 at-bats.
Unruh will see time in the outfield as well.
?Savannah?s thowing is excellent,? Sinclair said. ?We don?t have to tell outfielders that have been here how to throw the ball in. They keep it flat, they keep it on the line, they?re hitting their cut.?
Merrell could see some time at first base, as could Taylor Helmer, a left-handed freshman.
?There?s not one girl out there who?s never played,? Sinclair said of her roster. ?They all come with some kind of experience in their past.?
Even with the Trojans? depth of experience and talent, there?s no guarantee the team can match or better its 23-3 record from a year ago.
The Central Kan?sas League title is up for grabs among several bona fide contenders.
?Haven and Lyons (3A) will be pretty strong, Pratt always fields a good team at 4A,? Sinclair said, adding that no team will be an easy win.
The addition of Larned and Hoisington this season will bring the number of teams to 12, leading to a ?double dual? format on the last day of the regular season. Hillsboro and Halstead will play at Hesston, with each team playing one game against the other two schools.
The Trojans will open the 2015 season Thursday with a doubleheader against Smoky Valley at Lindsborg.
?Smoky Valley will be a question mark for us here in the beginning,? Sinclair said. ?The Stockman family moved, so they don?t have their leading pitcher.?
Hillsboro will play its first home game April 7 when Hoisington comes to the Sports Complex for a pair of games. Game 1 will begin at 4 p.m.