After a strong pitching performance by sophomore Jenna Gnaedinger in the season opener, Highland’s other two aces — freshman Kirsten Plocher and sophomore Aubrey Hacke — took their turns in the circle last week and wreaked havoc on the offenses of two more non-conference opponents.
On Tuesday of last week, Highland traveled to Greenville, and Plocher helped the Lady Bulldogs fly by the Comets 8-0.
Next, on Friday, Highland’s home game against Granite City was postponed one day due to sloppy field conditions, but it only delayed the inevitable as Hacke helped the Lady Bulldogs maul the Warriors with a 10-0 rout in six innings.
The two wins boosted Highland’s season record 3-0 prior to the this week’s play. HHS was scheduled first to host Mater Dei on Tuesday before traveling to play scheduled road games at Belleville Althoff Wednesday and Gillespie today. All games were after press time.
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All three Highland pitchers have thrown dominant outings and each one has picked up one of the wins in the circle. The trio has allowed only one earned run in 21 innings to earn an outlandish, microscopic team ERA of 0.333.
“It’s nice to have three strong pitchers on our squad, and they’re all so young so we’re going to have them for a few years,” said Highland first-year coach Brittne Zobrist,
Highland 10, Granite City 0 (6 innings)
Hacke did not pitch in the first two games of the season while nursing an achy back and shoulder. Last Friday, she returned and picked up right where she left off last spring when she became the team’s ace in the second half of the season.
Hacke not only shut out the Warriors, but she did so in domineering fashion, striking out 12 batters while walking no one, permitting just three hits and one hit batsman.
“I felt loose, and it felt good to throw again,” Hacke said. “It was good to have my changeup on. I felt like my velocity was on which I hadn’t had in a while and my changeup was working, so everything felt good, and I felt comfortable.”
Zobrist said it was impressive how well Hacke threw in her first game back,” especially on a cold, windy day.
“It was nice to have her on the mound today for the first home game,” Zobrist said of Hacke. “She earned it. She was throwing pretty hard today, and I felt bad for (sophomore catcher) Megan (Frey), because her hand was probably stinging a little bit. (Hacke) also had some good defensive plays behind her.”
Not to be overlooked was Highland’s offense, which pounded out a dozen hits and scored three runs in the second and one in the fourth before invoking the mercy rule with a six-run uprising in the sixth.
The brunt of the Lady Bulldogs’ assault was headed by junior center fielder Lauren Wright’s monstrous day at the dish. Wright went a perfect 3-for-3 at the dish and put her speed and power on full display as she came within a single of hitting for the cycle, highlighted by an inside-the-park home run. She ended up knocking in three runs and scoring three runs.
Granite City’s Morgan Tanksley was the game’s losing pitcher after allowing 10 runs (five earned) on 12 hits and two walks while striking out six in 5 1/3 innings.
“(Tanksley) was very good and I was looking to make contact and beat anything out I could,” Wright said. “I am not a certain pitch hitter and look to just hit the ball solid. Having Hannah (Miener) in front of me as a hitter pushes me to do what I can to move her or hit her in.
“We worked quite a bit in the offseason with strength and speed training and I’m glad the time put in is showing.”
Hacke and Frey each supplied two hits apiece. Hacke also drove in three runs and scored once and Frey also added a walk to reach base on three out of four plate appearances.
“It felt good to play as a team and bat up and down the lineup and score a lot because it totally takes the pressure off you,” Hacke said. “Lauren wa awesome and it was great to have her bat in the lineup today.”
Wright jump started the offense in the botom of the second. After sophomore first baseman Hannah Miener flied a one-out single to center field, Wright followed by bashing a triple the opposite way to right to chase home Miener. With the help of a throwing error on Granite’s right fielder, Wright dashed around third base and also score on the play to make it 2-0 Highland.
Later in the inning, Hacke helped herself by connecting for an RBI single to right to score freshman Kourtney Zobrist, who was courtesy running for catcher Megan Frey (walk).
In the fourth, Wright led off and made no doubt whether it was a home run or not. She clobbered the ball the opposite way to right again and it bounced up against the fence, and Wright blazed around the bases to score just ahead of the tag at home plate to give the Lady Bulldogs a 4-0 advantage.
Tanksley could only record one out in the sixth as Highland used five hits, two errors and one walk to erupt for the game-ending six runs.
Hits in the inning came off the bats of Wright (RBI double), sophomore Sierra Huelsmann (single), Frey (single), Plocher (two-run single) and sophomore Peyton Holzinger (single). In addition, senior Mallory Rutz coaxed the walk in the frame.
“We had a lot of hits today,” Zobrist said. “It was a little sketchy at first but they like to hit in the later innings, which is fine by me as along as they are scoring runs. The bats got warmed up as the game got colder.”
Highland 8, Greenville 0
Plocher made her high school debut a memorable performance after carving up the Comets with a complete game one-hitter. She no-hit Greenville for 5 1/3 innings, recorded 10 of her 21 outs by strikeout and faced just three batters over the minimum. Plocher only yielded a hit batsman in the second, a walk in the third and a harmless one-out single in the sixth.
Plocher was also backed by a sound defense that played an error-free game.
Zobrist said in the preseason that Plocher would be a nice surprise for the team and Plocher proved her coach’s prediction was spot-on with a masterful initial outing in the circle.
“It was very exciting to watch Kirsten step on the mound and she demonstrated today why I am excited to have her on my squad,” Zobrist said. “She started out strong in the first inning and just kept her foot on the gas pedal the whole game. She didn’t do anything fancy to get them out. She continued to spot her fastball perfectly and just flat out-gassed them. Ten strikeouts in her first start is pretty impressive. We didn’t even realize she had a no-hitter going until the fifth inning.”
Zobrist said Plocher was so focused on the task at hand that Plocher herself didn’t realize that she only gave up one hit the entire game.
“That’s what’s great about her,” Zobrist said of Plocher’s focus. “When she steps on that mound, she is focused and does her job. There will be more great things to come from this kid this year and we can’t wait,”
Highland was also impressive on offense, combining 10 hits with seven walks to produce eight runs off two Greenville hurlers — six runs (five earned) on nine hits and five walks off starter Erin Smith and two runs (both earned) on one hit and two walks off Lexie Mills.
The Lady Bulldogs scored in five straight innings, highlighted by a pair of tallies in the second through fourth frames..
The offensive attack was led by Wright and Hacke with two hits apiece. The only extra-base hit came off the bat of Wright, who also unleashed the game’s biggest blow. With sacks full in the top of the third, Wright walloped a two-run double to right-center to give HHS some breathing room at 4-0. The drive came within a couple feet of being a grand slam.
“The offense definitely helped today,” Zobrist said. “I know Kirsten appreciated the run support. We all took some great at bats. We worked the count and hit the pitches we wanted. Lauren Wright crushed that double with the bases loaded and that really broke it open for us.”
Highland broke through on Smith in the second, with a pair of two-out RBI singles from Frey and Hacke.
After Wright’s two-RBI double in the third, the Lady Bulldogs made it three consecutive innings with two tallies in the fourth with the help of a Comet error and a bases-loaded walk from Miener to swell the lead to 6-0.
Highland tallied a single run in each of the fifth and sixth innings to complete the scoring. In the fifth, Huelsmann led off with a single and later scored on a passed ball. In the sixth, Rutz drew a leadoff walk, stole second and wound up at third on the play because of dropped third strike. Rutz then scored on Miener’s sacrifice fly.
Zobrist said she was also impressed with her team’s defense in the game, notably sophomore second baseman Peyton Holzinger for two great plays with her glove. She made a diving grab on a liner towards the hole and she also snagged a grounder deep in the hole to her left.
“Both helped save hits and kept runners off base,” Zobrist said. “Our defense overall has really stepped up, and I know it really puts all of our pitchers at ease to know the kind of team they have behind them. This was another team win for us today. We hope to keep them coming.”