For the second year in a row, the Highland High School softball team lost only one player to graduation, so the Lady Bulldogs are poised for another strong season.
However, the Lady Bulldogs may already be facing their biggest adversary before they even take the field to play their season opener at O’Fallon on Wednesday, March 15.
On Sunday Feb. 19, 2017 —which was eight days before official practices were set to begin — Highland coach Greg Exton was set to begin his second season at the helm, but was taken to the emergency room at St. Anthony’s Medical Center in St. Louis after having headaches and some confusion. A CAT scan showed a tumor on the right front of his brain. He was transferred to Barnes Jewish Hospital and they did a brain MRI.
On Feb. 21, Exton underwent surgery to remove the tumor. He was diagnosed with a glioblastoma brain tumor, an aggressive type of brain cancer. He got to go home on Friday, Feb. 24. He got the staples taken out on March 8 and will soon begin undergoing radiation, and then finally chemotherapy treatments in the pill form.
“It’s absolutely killing him not to be able to be here,” said his daughter Madi Exton, who is currently sharing head coaching duties with Glenn Nicholls in Greg’s absence. “He wants to be here every single day. I call him every single day after practice and tell him how practice went and how the girls are doing.”
Greg is a softball junkie and wants so badly to be a part of it all that he has Madi taking some pictures of the girls at practice so he can see what is going on and stay up to date. He actually plans to be in the dugout scorekeeping the season-opening game Wednesday in O’Fallon.
“Hopefully, he can start going to practices as soon as possible, and I think he can start driving on the (March) 21st or so, so that’s good,” Madi said. “I took a team photo at the end of practice and they all made little hearts with their hands for ‘I love Greg’ so that was nice...He definitely wants and plans to be back coaching the team at some point this season.”
Nicholls has worked with Greg Exton with the Black Widows Fastpitch Softball Association for years, and when Greg took over the program at Highland, he called Nicholls to come assist him and Madi.
“Greg has a great attitude and that’s half the battle when it comes to something like this,” Nicholls said. “Hopefully, this is a minor setback and that is the way he looks at it. I know it’s killing him not to be out here, and if the doctor told him he could drive, he would be out here right now.”
On the field
Last year, the Bulldogs went 25-9 and were crowned regional champions for the third time in a row —all oddly enough came under three different coaches — and Highland also advanced to the sectional championship for the second straight season.
After losing only one player to graduation last year, Highland returns a wealth of experience and talent. Of the 16 varsity team members, 13 of them are upperclassmen with four of them being key cogs as seniors.
“The past two years we have only had one senior so we have a lot of girls back again and we’re looking to have nine good bats in the lineup,” Madi Exton said. “We have our biggest senior class in a while with four and these seniors are very, very talented. They were talented as sophomores and I can’t wait to see what they are going to do as seniors.”
The fourth-year team members who will be instrumental to the team’s success are Aubrey Hacke, Reily Kassay, Hannah Miener and Peyton Holzinger.
“Expectations are high for this season,” Madi Exton said. “Conference would be nice, but I want to at least make where we made it two years ago, the super-sectional,” Madi Exton said. “State would be great and these girls want it too. We want it too and it would be so great to do it for dad. That would be icing on the cake just to go to state That would be a great experience for them and they are deserving of it and if they work hard enough, I think we can get there.”
Highland’s success all starts with its shutdown pitching and for the third consecutive spring, the Bulldogs will send two of the area’s top hurlers — senior left-hander Hacke and junior right-hander Kirsten Plocher — out to the circle to stymy opposing offenses.
“They both have looked really sharp in practice and they both had good fall and winter seasons, and have been working really hard and looking really strong,” Nicholls said.
In addition to last year, Hacke has played for Greg Exton for five years for the Black Widows select softball program. Hacke has been a Mississippi Valley Conference All-Conference performer in all three of her previous seasons.
In the circle, she went 7-4 with a 1.91 earned run average and 75 strikeouts in 87 2/3 innings of work.
As a junior, Hacke had a .413 batting average and a .596 slugging percentage with 43 hits, a team-high 35 RBIs, and 22 runs scored.
Last fall, Hacke signed a national letter of intent to play softball next year for the University of Nebraska Omaha Mavericks.
“Aubrey is an all-around athlete who will contribute at the plate as well as in the circle,” said University of Nebraska Omaha women’s softball coach D.J. Sanchez. “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.”
Plocher also posted dynamic numbers as she logged team highs in wins (12), strikeouts (77) and innings pitched (91). She finished the year with a 12-2 mark and a 2.23 ERA.
Majority of infield returns
Outside of the catcher position, Highland’s rest of the infield returns.
Nobody was more important than freshman shortstop Lily Garbett, who played above her age in turning turned a lot of heads in her introduction to high school softball. In addition to showing a good glove, arm and range in the hole, Garbett is a hard-nosed kid in the field and can rake at the dish. She hit .409 with a .456 on-base percentage to go along with a team-best 12 doubles, two homers, one triple, 33 RBIs (second best) and 25 runs.
Kassay will be entrenched at the hot corner at third base for the third year in a row. She can flash the leather, has a good arm and can hit with the best of them. A year ago, Kassay, who is a Missouri Baptist University recruit, hit .385 wiht a .422 on-base percentage, eight doubles, two triples, one homer, 31 runs and 16 RBIs.
Miener has been the mainstay at first base for the past two years but may have a battle for playing time there from Hacke this year. But no matter who starts more at first, both of their bats will deservedly be in the batting lineup on an everyday basis. The one not at first would be in the lineup as the designated player.
A year ago, Miener, a Danville College pledge, batted .292 wiht a .359 on-base percentage, 10 doubles, one triple, 27 RBIs and 17 runs. And defensively, Miener has a good glove and offers a big target for her teammates.
Holzinger returns to handle second base for the third year in a row. Last year, she hit .299 with a .342 on-base percentage, eight doubles, 22 RBIs and 12 runs.
Junior Lauren Baer will be changing positions as she will move from left field to behind the plate as the catcher.
Baer is also plenty capable with the stick. Laste year, she batted .327 wiht a .400 on-base percentage, three homers, 10 doubles, two triples, 21 RBIs and 25 runs.
Also vying at the catcher position are freshman Mia Walters, junior transfer Sidney Harnetiaux and juniro Cassie Fuller.
Highland only lost one player to graduation in center fielder Lauren Wright, although she was a key cog both offensively and defensively. On defense, she was a reliable center fielder who could chase down fly balls in the gaps, while on offense she was the best hitter and table setter as the leadoff hitter and base stealer.
With the departure of Wright, who is currently playing ball at the St. Louis College of Pharmacy, the responsibility of flagging down balls in the outfield will fall to speedy junior Hannah Sullens.
Junior Kourtney Zobrist will be in left field.
“We need her bat in the lineup somehow,” Madi Exton said of Zobrist. “If she is not playing defense, she will be at DP. She has been just killing the ball in practice and looking like one of the better hitters this year so far. Hopefully, that bat will come to life in games.”
Battling for the spot in right field are juniors Addison Rinderer and Bre Wernle.
“They both got good arms and good wheels and those are good outfield qualities to have,” Madi Exton said.