After leaving her mark on the Highland High School softball program by leading the team to its winningest season in school history, Highland High School 2017 graduate Aubrey Hacke is ready to try and make her mark at the Division I level as she takes her skills to the University of Nebraska Omaha.
Hacke was actually looking at two other schools — Benedictine College and Quincy University — when Nebraska Omaha softball coach DJ Sanchez reached out to her for a visit. So, she and her parents, Derek and Lori Hacke, drove to Nebraska on Labor Day 2016. She became immediately enamored with the surroundings.
“I absolutely fell in love with the city, the campus, all the people I met, and the thought of potentially being a part of a brand new program under Coach Sanchez,” Hacke said. “Ever since I was little, she was who I looked up to and aspired to be as a pitcher. She is a huge reason why I pursued pitching in the first place, and it is a dream come true to be able to be playing for her.”
Coach is a former star
Coach Sanchez is the former DJ (Dylan) Mathis of Roxana High School, who from 2002-05 starred as a four-time all-state selection after going 89-11 and posting microscopic ERA all four years: 0.22 as a freshman, 0.11 as a sophomore, 0.14 as a junior and 0.25 as a senior.
Sanchez, who was also a stalwart hitter in high school, played her college ball at the University of Oklahoma, where in four years she posted a 76-23 record with a 1.90 ERA, and was a two-time all region selection and a 2008 All-American. She ranked second all-time in winning percentage (.768), third in appearances (138) and victories (76), fourth in strikeouts (597), sixth in innings pitched (637.0) and games started (100), seventh in shutouts (25) and eighth in complete games (54).
Sanchez was selected as the second overall pick in the 2009 National Pro Fastpitch Senior Draft by the Akron Racers.
After serving as a grad student at Oklahoma and as an assistant coach at Kansas, Sanchez served as the head coach at St. Gregory’s University for four seasons. While there, she compiled a 172-47 overall record (.785), an 81-25 mark (.764) in the Sooner Athletic Conference and advanced to the NAIA post-season four times. The Cavaliers won their conference championship last season and twice earned a spot in the NAIA World Series.
Sanchez was hired in August 2016 as the seventh head coach in Omaha softball history. In her first season, Omaha finished with a 15-30 overall record and a 6-8 mark in the Summit League, which qualified the Mavericks for their second consecutive Summit League Tournament.
“I think the best part about being coached by her is that she is left-handed also,” Hacke said of Sanchez. “She will be able to teach me so much and allow me to learn from my own perspective. I think I will really be able to excel under her and take my game to the next level.”
Hacke could play key role
After losing four seniors to graduation — including a senior pitcher — off this past spring’s team, which struggled with only two pitchers, Hacke said Sanchez is really looking to build a pitching staff.
Hacke is one of three incoming pitchers, but the only lefty. She also looks forward to the opportunity to hit and maybe even play outfield if she works hard.
Sanchez is excited to be adding a player with Hacke’s all-around skills to her squad for the next four years.
“Aubrey is an all-around athlete who will contribute at the plate as well as in the circle,” Sanchez said. “She is a very mature ball player and an outstanding young woman. Aubrey is a hard worker who will do whatever is asked of her, and she will be a tremendous asset to our program in the future.”
Hacke said her main goal is to make an impact in her next four years.
“Coach Sanchez has a goal to make it to the NCAA tournament for the first time and I will do everything I can to make sure it happens,” she said.
Making her mark
Hacke was sort of a late bloomer when it came to softball, because her main focus was on soccer most of her life. She started pitching when she was 12 years old and didn’t start playing high-level softball until she was 14. She maintains a strong love for the game.
“This passion drove me to want to play,” Hacke said.
That fervor powered her to big things in her four years at Highland High School, where she posted a 38-12 career record with an ERA under 2.00 all four years to lead the Bulldogs to four consecutive regional titles and one sectional championship.
Hacke turned heads early when she took advantage of the opportunity to pitch halfway through her freshman year. She went 7-1 with a 1.38 ERA and helped Highland win its first regional crown in five years and its third overall at that time.
This past spring, Hacke put up her best numbers of her career in the circle with a 17-2 record and a 1.33 ERA, while she also hit .434 with a .500 on-base average, 10 doubles, four triples, one home run and 24 RBIs to steer the Bulldogs to the best start in school history at 22-0 and the most wins in program history at 29. Along the way Highland won the championships of its own regional, the Mississippi Valley Conference and the Triad Invitational.
And all of it came while the team was dealing with a lot of adversity. First off, coach Greg Exton had to have a brain tumor removed right before the start of the season and underwent chemotherapy and radiation during the campaign. Then on the eve of the regional championship, junior catcher Lauren Baer, the team’s best power hitter with eight home runs and 36 RBIs, was rushed to the hospital; a tumor was discovered near her adrenal gland and kidney and ultimately removed.
“I would say that, overall, the season this team managed to have was groundbreaking and full of heart,” Hacke said. “For most teams, their battles are fought on the field. However, for us, we seemed to be fighting many off-the-field battles all year. I think this made us stronger as a team and stronger people overall. When we look back, we can say that no other Highland softball team accomplished what we were able to and that’s pretty outstanding.
“Personally, I was able to accomplish many things that I wasn’t able to my past three years because I was healthy. Until this year, I did not have a season where I wasn’t injured at some point and I think it really made a difference.”
Now that high school ball is over, summer ball is starting right away, and Hacke is excited to get right back to playing ball with her select team, the Black Widows.
“I love that, playing in Illinois, I am able to go from one season right into the next,” she said. “I look forward to a very fruitful season with my talented Black Widows team. I also love that I can continue to be coached by Coach Greg (Exton), and my season with him did not end in high school. I accredit him with so much and really molding me into the ball player I am today. He’s an inspiration.”
Hacke and her Black Widows will have a tough summer schedule and will finish it out with Nationals in Texas during late July.
“When that ends, I could not be more excited to continue my softball career and play at the University of Nebraska Omaha,” she said. “The way it all happened made it seem meant to be.”
Hacke plans to major in communications and hopes to go on and get a master’s degree in occupational therapy.
“However, if the chance arises, I would love to stay in softball,” she admitted.