The Highland High softball team steamrolled three more opponents to run its unbeaten streak to open the season to four games.
First on March 21, the Lady Bulldogs traveled to Greenville and blazed past the Comets 15-1 in five innings.
Next on March 22, Highland traveled to Belleville East and carved up the previously unbeaten Lancers 8-3.
Finally, on March 23 the Bulldogs held its home opener and were rude hosts after mauling the Granite City Warriors 8-0.
Highland (4-0) has outscored its four opponents by a combined margin of 42-6.
Inspiration and extra motivation
Highland has had coach Greg Exton in the dugout at every game thus far. It was thought he would be sidelined for at least most of the season after having a cancerous brain tumor removed last month, right before official practices began.
“We want to win, because coach Greg is here, and he is our motivation,” said senior first baseman Hannah Miener, who is hitting .462 with team highs in all of the following: a home run, RBIs (six) and runs scored (six). “If he can fight, we can fight, too.”
Exton plans to be at every game this season, even though he begins chemo and radiation treatments March 30.
“I should make every game now that I have gotten started,” Exton said. “I see no reason why I wouldn’t, but it just depends, and we’ll see how that (the treatments) goes.”
Exton will do both radiation and chemo for six weeks, with the chemo treatments in IV form. Then, he will undergo chemo in the pill form for the next six months.
“They say there shouldn’t be too many side effects, but I could get a little tired or weak at times, but I shouldn’t get too nauseous, like you have heard so many times before,” he said.
Exton has even lobbied to coach third base, but his daughter, assistant coach Madi Exton, and his wife advised against it. Greg Exton agreed to stay in the dugout and continue to keep the scorebook for the team.
Highland 8, Granite City 0
Junior pitcher Kirsten Plocher (2-0) spun the team’s first shutout after going the distance and blanking the Warriors on a meager two hits and two walks. Plocher was dominant en route to striking out a team season-high 13 batters, including punching out the side with the bases loaded in the seventh inning.
And Plocher received plenty of support as Highland’s offense banged out 11 hits, five of the extra-base variety — and scored three runs in each of the first and fourth innings before tacking on an additional two tallies in the fifth.
The Bulldogs received two hits apiece from Miener, senior second baseman Peyton Holzinger, junior left fielder Kourtney Zobrist and sophomore shortstop Lily Garbett.
Miener slugged a two-run double in the first frame and later socked a solo home run in the fifth to help power Highland.
“I was very focused on each pitch, and I was seeing the ball very well,” Miener said of her two extra-base hits. “I wanted to help the team get another run on the scoreboard and to back up our pitcher. It was another great win we got for Coach Greg.”
Just as they have done all season thus far, the Bulldogs pounced on their opponent early.
After Plocher retired Granite in order, Zobrist and Garbett set the table with back-to-back one out singles before Miener crunched a double to left to bring both around to score.
Junior catcher Lauren Baer then battled with a good at-bat to stay alive before slicing a rocket triple the opposite way to left to drive home Miener and extend HHS’ lead to 3-0.
After two scoreless innings, Highland got back to work at the plate in the fourth with another three-run rally.
Senior designated player Aubrey Hacke singled to center and Holzinger promptly ripped a triple to center to bring Hacke to the plate for a four-run cushion. Holzinger then scored on junior right fielder Addison Rinderer’s RBI ground out to first base.
Junior center fielder Hannah Sullens then tripled to center and two batters later, Zobrist knocked Sullens in with a single the opposite way to right to widen the margin to 6-0.
In the home half of the fifth, Miener led off and hammered a 2-2 pitch over the fence in left field for the team’s round-tripper of the season.
Two batters later, Hacke reached on an error and scored on Holzinger’s RBI single to right to provide the eighth and final run.
Highland 8, Belleville East 3
The Bulldogs broke open a 1-1 draw with a three-run top of the second and took complete control with two additional tallies in the third to take commanding 6-1 lead.
The Lancers, who entered the game 4-0, got one run back in each of the fourth and fifth frames to chop the deficit down to three, only to watch Highland retaliate and get both tallies back in the top of the seventh.
The Bulldogs outhit Belleville East 12-5, while senior left-hander Aubrey Hacke was solid again in the circle en route to improving to 2-0. Hacke threw all seven innings and allowed three earned runs on five hits and one walk while whiffing six.
Leading the way at the dish for Highland were Holzinger, Kassay and Baer, who all went 3-for-4 on the day. Holzinger also logged a game-best two RBIs. All three of Kassay’s hits were doubles while Baer belted one double.
“We have been having so much fun and playing loose and it shows,” Baer said. “We went into the game with the mindset that they are a 4A school, and the pressure was on them to defend their large school title. We knew if we came out swinging and backed Aubrey up in the field that we could come out with the win. It was a total team effort. Kourtney (Zobrist) made a great catch in left, Riley had some key plays at third, and Aubrey really brought it today. We couldn’t have asked for a better game today.”
As she has in every game, Kassay helped ignite the offense, greeting Lancer starter Kristina Bettis with a leadoff double to center. Three batters later, she scored on an error.
After Bettis hit a RBI double in the bottom half of the first to tie the game at 1-1, Highland responded fully with a three-run second. Baer started it with a double to left. After Zobrist walked, Holzinger put the Bulldogs ahead to stay with a RBI single to center.
After a sacrifice by Rinderer, Zobrist and Holzinger both scored on an error to stake Highland to a 4-1 advantage.
Baer got the two-run third going with a one-out single to center. Zobrist and Holzinger followed up with singles. After a run scored on an error, Zobrist scored on Rinderer’s RBI ground out to first base to extend HHS’ advantage to 6-1.
Belleville East chipped away at the lead when Bettis tripled and scored in the fourth and another single crossed home plate on a Highland error in the fifth to chop the deficit to 6-3.
However, the Bulldogs answered loudly with a two-run seventh. Miener and Baer sparked the mini rally with a walk and a single to open the frame. Miener later scored on a bunt from Zobrist before Holzinger knocked in the game’s final run with a base hit to left.
Highland 15, Greenville 1
In game that was every bit as lopsided as the final score would indicate, the Bulldogs outhit the Comets 18-3. Greenville also committed a handful of errors, while Highland had its second straight error-less game.
Kassay, Miener, Sullens, Baer, Rinderer and Harnetiaux all contributed two hits apiece. Harnetiaux slugged a triple and Kassay and Rinderer each belted a double.
In addition, Kassay, Miener, Baer and Harnetiaux each drove in a pair of runs while Garbett scored three runs and Kassay, Miener, Rinderer, Sullens and Hacke all scored twice.
The Bulldogs scored all 17 runs in their first three at-bats and poured it on more each inning. Highland scored three times in the first inning before following up with five tallies in the second and a seven-spot in the third.
After going an impressive 12-2 as a sophomore, Plocher opened this season with a win in her first start. She permitted just one earned run on three hits and one walk with six strikeouts in five frames.
In HHS’ three-run first, Kassay sparked the five-run rally with a leadoff single to center and then stole second and third. After Hacke walked, Garbett lined a single to center to knock in Kassay and move Hacke over to third. After Hacke scored on a sacrifice fly to left from Miener, Garbett stole second before coming around to score on Baer’s single to center.
Rinderer got the five-run second going with a leadoff single to center. After Rinderer advanced into scoring position on a passed ball and the first out was made, Kassay smote a double to plate Rinderer. Sullens followed with a single to right to score Kassay and make it 5-0. After the second out, Garbett’s hard ground ball resulted in an error that allowed her to reach and Sullens to score. After a single to left from Miener, Baer singled to center to knock in Garbett before Miener scored on another Comet error.
Rinderer also got the seven-run third started by going the opposite way for a double to left. Plocher singled to put runners at the corners before hit a sacrifice fly to left to allow Rinderer to tag and score to make it 9-0. Two errors sandwiched around a Hacke single allowed two more runs to cross home plate, then Miener’s single to right chased home Hacke to increase the margin to 12-0. Harnetiaux then pummeled a two-run triple to center before junior Mia Walters walked and sophomore Lexi Gilliam hit an RBI single to drive home Harnetiaux to cap off the scoring binge.
Greenville got its lone run in the fourth when Nancy Fritzsche tripled to right and scored on Jaidyn Akerman’s ground out. However, it was not near enough to prevent the ballgame from being stopped two innings early due to the 10-run mercy rule.