After going 19-1 in the regular season last year and making the trip to the state tournament in Manhattan, the baseline achievement for the Hillsboro High School girls softball team is to earn a return trip to the state tournament May 27.
“The kids have high expectations. I have high expectations,” coach Stephanie Sinclair said. “I would be disappointed if we did not make it that far.”
Sinclair has nearly an ideal situation for achieving that goal. With 17 girls out for the team, only Tara Heinrichs and Dianne Sanders and transfer Franny Gottsch, who graduated, are not back for the Trojans. The team only has two seniors this season: center fielder Taylor Nikkel and catcher Allie Faul.
Hillsboro’s top three hitters — juniors Stephanie Sanders and Krista Reimer, and sophomore Tena Loewen — are back at the top of the Trojans’ lineup. Nikkel and Faul and juniors Courtney Weber, Sammy Koons, and Amy Bartel were also aggressive hitters who sprayed line drives into outfield gaps. From leadoff through the nine hole, Hillsboro will feature a formidable lineup.
“Our team batting average was the highest it’s ever been,” Sinclair said.
Hillsboro will also continue a trend of aggressive base running. Sanders, Loewen, and Nikkel are consistent threats to steal bases and even bash inside-the-park homeruns. While the Trojans won many games by scoring 10 runs or more, they were also adept at performing sacrifice bunts and moving runners into scoring position in hit and run situations to win close games.
“We should still be quick,” Sinclair said. “We’re going to be balanced with speed.”
While dominant at the plate, pitching and defense allowed the Trojans to win games consistently.
For the infield, Sanders is back at shortstop and Loewen will see plenty of innings at second base, although she may pitch and play the outfield this season.
“I don’t know how many times Tena picked up a ball off another player’s glove,” Sanders said of Loewen saving plays after a pitcher or another defensive player deflected the ball. “You don’t keep stats for that.”
Faul is the Trojans starting catcher and Koons has a lock on first base, although she may see time at third base and in the outfield.
What separates the Trojans defensively from many other teams is that their outfield defense is just as strong as their infield defense. Nikkel is the team’s full-time center fielder. She has the speed to cover all fields and make great plays less spectacular by standing up to make a catch.
Reimer and Bartel are Hillsboro’s starting corner outfielders, with Reimer playing more often in right field. While not as fast as Nikkel, both Reimer and Bartel have a quick first step on fly balls and possess strong arms to get the ball to the appropriate cutoff player.
With the departure of Heinrichs, third base is the only infield hole for the Trojans to start the season. Sinclair said the position might change depending on who is on the rubber for Hillsboro. Weber, sophomore Erin Loewen, and Koons may all see time at third base this season.
Weber is Hillsboro’s starting pitcher. She was dominant in many games last season with her ability to blow hitters away with fastballs or confuse hitters with changeups and curveballs.
Like many of the Trojans’ opponents, Sinclair may ask Weber to start both games in doubleheaders. Last season, Gottsch would start at least one game and serve as a change of pace to Weber with her crafty array of pitches.
Tena Loewen, sophomore Christina Morris, and any one of Hillsboro’s five freshmen could see time at pitcher to relieve Weber.
Gottsch will also be missed at the plate. She led the Trojans in RBIs with timely hits last season.
Hillsboro’s schedule will be more difficult this season. While wins against Nickerson, Haven, Smoky Valley, and Halstead were hard fought last year, Pratt and Kingman should also be tough teams. The Trojans play a non-league doubleheader with Marion, as well.
“The league is going to be better,” Sinclair said. “We added two teams that can contend.”
The Trojans begin the season 4:30 p.m. March 29 at Pratt.