COLUMBIA — The success they experienced last season in going 30-6 and coming so close to advancing to the super-sectional has fueled the Columbia Eagles' ambitions for this season.
The Eagles advanced to the sectional championship last year before losing 4-3 in nine innings to eventual Class 3A state runner-up Alton Marquette and hard-throwing pitcher Alexis Silkwood.
"These girls have played high levels and had some huge experiences in the last two and three years," said Columbia coach Rhonda Major, whose squad has gotten off to a 3-0 start this season. "They've all played in key games and been right there. I think they are definitely building off of last year, and they have the drive, let me tell you.
"They want to get further than they did last year .We were right there, and with what we have returning, I think they know if we work hard, we can go somewhere."
The Eagles bring back six of the nine players who started in the sectional championship game, including one of the top batteries in the state in pitcher senior Brianna Weilbacher and junior catcher Taryn Pena.
"We have a lot of returning talent, and we have some incoming talent that I am very excited about," Major said. "I'm excited to see what these girls can do together."
Weilbacher had a 17-4 record with a 1.47 ERA last season. She struck out 234 batters in 133 2/3 innings of work.
"We're very fortunate to have Bri," Major said. "She's been a huge part of our success the last three years. She and Taryn work really well together. Bri is just as an all-around great pitcher as well as a great hitter.
"She has worked her butt off to get where she is, and I'm excited to see what her senior year brings for her."
Weilbacher also batted .416 with three homers and 41 RBIs.
Pena led the Eagles with a .593 batting average of 57 RBIs last season. She had 33 extra-base hits -- 19 doubles, five triples and nine home runs.
"It means everything to have a great pitcher, but when you have a great pitcher and great catcher combo, it makes it even better," Major said.
Junior Rachel Garcia will shift from the outfield to first base this season. Garcia batted .439 with 35 RBIs last season, and she has six hits in her first nine at-bats, including two homers, and nine RBIs this season.
"She hit some bombs," Major said of Garcia's two homers in a doubleheader sweep of Piasa Southwestern. "She is seeing the ball really well. Very disciplined at-bats. I like what I am seeing from her."
Sophomore Kalli Farmer, who batted .333 in part-time action as a freshman last year, will play second base.
Junior Kaylee Bastien, who batted .437 with 45 runs scored, returns at shortstop and junior Caitlyn Touchette, who batted. 393 with 32 RBIs last season, returns at third base.
Freshmen Courtney Weilbacher and Kelly Metter are two of the young players who are vying for playing time in the outfield.
Major said developing good team chemistry is the biggest key to success for the Eagles this season.
"Working hard and making sure that one way or another that they are making themselves better every day, challenging themselves and playing as team," Major said. "Team chemistry is everything, and this is a great group of girls, a fun group of girls."
Contact reporter Steve Korte at email@example.com or 239-2522.