Trojans rely on trust, talent for 19-1 record
Although the Hillsboro High School softball team is 19-1, their nearly perfect season was on the line in games against Smoky Valley, Nickerson, and Ellinwood.
The Trojans defeated Nickerson in nine innings, Smokey Valley on the road with a run manufactured through a bunt in the top of the seventh, and Ellinwood by scoring two runs in the bottom of the seventh inning. The Trojans relied on reserves of talent, trust, and determination to stay undefeated.
The entire team can hit well. Four everyday Hillsboro players are hitting over .400 — Tena Loewen, Stephanie Sanders, Taylor Nikkel, and Krista Reimer — led by Sanders who is hitting .565 through 62 at bats. Sanders, Nikkel, and Franny Gottsch also have more than 20 RBI.
“We have a lot of confidence at the plate,” sophomore third baseman Tara Heinrichs said. “We’re not afraid to strike out.”
While they can amass runs with aplomb, timely hitting is the Trojans’ calling card. The Trojans are hitting .409 as a team with runners in scoring position, with nine players compiling more than 10 RBI this season.
“Almost all of the kids have gotten big hits,” coach Stephanie Sinclair said. “Krista has gotten big hits; Tara Heinrichs had a big hit.”
Sinclair said that hitting has been contagious for the Trojans this year. When the first Hillsboro batter gets on, the hitting spreads throughout the Trojan lineup, creating big innings.
It helps that the Trojans like to wreak havoc on the bases to distract opponent fielders.
Nikkel, who usually leads off for Hillsboro, has 21 stolen bases. Loewen and Sanders, who often hit behind Nikkel and in front of Gottsch have stolen 17 and 15 bases respectively.
With as much power as the Trojans possess — Nikkel has three home runs and Reimer, Bartel???, Loewen, and Allie Faul each have one — they are willing to lay down a bunt to move a runner over. Hillsboro has compiled 20 sacrifice bunts on the season.
In a game May 4, the Trojans were facing ace Halstead pitcher Ashley Vansteenburg and got creative to score runs. Hillsboro started an inning with a single but then used two straight bunts to confuse Dragon fielders and load the bases. Hillsboro defeated Halstead, 5-2.
Sanders also used a bunt to score Loewen to win a game in the seventh inning, 4-3, April 16 against Smoky Valley.
The Trojans can field. Hillsboro currently has a .922 fielding percentage.
“We’re solid at every position,” starting first baseman Sammy Koons said.
Two newcomers have shored up the Hillsboro defense. Loewen has started at second for most games this year and has shown incredible range at the position.
“You saw that I couldn’t get a ball by her,” Sinclair said of Loewen who made a snow-cone grab on a ball seemingly destined for right field Thursday at practice. “She has great instincts and length.”
Faul’s defense behind the plate, one of the toughest positions to play, has also solidified the defense. Although Faul is a junior and a staple on Trojan volleyball and basketball squads this is her first season with the softball team.
“Allie catching has improved every game,” Sinclair said. “With that girl, nothing is good enough, she’s always critiquing herself.”
Nikkel’s speed in center field is capable of tracking down most fly balls, and Sanders at shortstop is a steady and experienced defender.
On one play April 23 against Lyons, Sanders held a tag on a Lion runner who had slid into second.
“She was like, ‘Why are you doing that?’” Sanders recounted the runner saying.
“You’ll see,” Sanders replied.
The runner subsequently stepped away from the base without asking for a timeout and was called out.
Gottsch and Courtney Weber both have sub-three ERAs from the mound: 2.61 for Weber and 2.33 for Gottsch. Gottsch has allowed opponents to hit .270 against her while Weber has allowed a .235 opponent batting average.
The two pitchers differ in their approach. Weber throws much harder, but has developed a changeup and a drop ball this year.
“She has gotten a little more confident in herself,” Sinclair said. “If she throws the drop ball and it doesn’t drop, she’ll go back to it.”
Gottsch is the craftier of the two hurlers. She uses a funky delivery that is more of a dance than a pitch and she throws four different pitches.
“She throws two different changeups at different speeds,” Sinclair said. “She has learned a drop ball and she hits locations well.”
Sinclair was also impressed with the way Gottsch and Weber have handled Loewen’s ascension to second base. The two pitchers played second when not on the mound last year, but Gottsch has had no problem either playing third or just being the team’s designated hitter.
“She’ll do anything I ask her to do; anywhere in the field,” Sinclair said.
Sinclair said that Gottsch and Weber have also battled back injuries this year, but have not missed a start.
With all of their talent, the Trojans have not won all their games easily.
Hillsboro needed two runs in the seventh inning to defeat Ellinwood. Nikkel ran home on a fielder’s choice and beat the tag by the Eagle catcher by sliding behind home plate and Gottsch knocked Sammy Koons in with a single to defeat Ellinwood, 7-6.
The Trojans also defeated Nickerson in extra innings.
“Everyone pulls for each other,” Koons said.
“We never give up,” Sanders said. “We always keep our composure.”
The Trojans keep their composure because they have developed a strong team bond based on trust.
They also keep a good sense of humor.
“We all hate each other,” Heinrichs said with a deadpan voice. “That’s why we hit so well.”
“Not being so serious all the time helps us a lot,” Sanders said. “We don’t have awkward relationships.”
It helps that most of the girls have been playing together since they were 7 or 8 years old. Over that time, the team has developed a trust and honesty with one another.
“If one person makes a mistake in a spot, we don’t pick them apart,” Sanders said.
The honesty aspect of the Trojans team chemistry allows the Trojans to be critical of one another but not demeaning.
“When I get really (angry) you come chew me out really hard,” Koons said of Nikkel as an example.
“We’re not going to cry if someone tells us to do something,” Heinrichs said.
The faith the Trojans hold in themselves and one another has allowed them come back in games and hold off charging opponents.
“They don’t let that keep them from playing well,” Sinclair said. “I have a lot of trust in these kids. If they make a mistake, they know they’ll bounce back.”
Last modified May 13, 2010