With veteran coach Sharon Schmitz retiring after leading the Highland High softball team to a regional title last spring, the Lady Bulldogs have a new head coach.
But Brittne Zobrist certainly is no stranger to the program.
She served as the junior varsity coach under Schmitz last year, but Zobrist has history with Schmitz and the HHS softball program that dates back much longer than one year.
Zobrist was a successful starting catcher for Schmitz, highlighted by her junior year in 2006 when Zobrist backstopped the Lady Bulldogs to a 20-12 record. It was the program’s first 20-win season in nine years and just the second one in school history up to that point.
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After her graduation and while attending Southern Illinois University Edwardsville, Zobrist served as a volunteer coach for a couple of years under Schmitz.
Zobrist is ecstatic to be back and now she gets to take over the reins of a program that returns several key pieces from a squad went 20-11 last year, punctuated by winning the Triad Regional.
“It is pretty exciting, and I am glad to be able to come in when I did,” she said. “It was nice being a JV coach last year and getting to see how things operate as a full head coach. I volunteered for a couple of years in the past, but to be able to come in now with the talent we have coming though is extremely exciting.”
Zobrist said practices have been a lot of fun lately.
“The girls are making plays and doing the right things. It’s all coming together nicely,” she said.
The Lady Bulldogs boast only one senior, Mallory Rutz, and one junior, Lauren Wright, who both not surprisingly were voted the team captains after being vital cogs a year ago.
“Those two (Rutz and Wright) alone will help the young talent of the sophomores and the one freshman that we do have (Kirsten Plocher) and really help take us to the next level,” Zobrist said.
Zobrist described Rutz as “obviously a phenomenal player.” Rutz will be switching from the hot corner at third base back to her natural position at shortstop, where she will utilize her range to cover the hole.
As good as she is flashing the leather, Rutz is absolutely lethal to opposing pitchers at the dish, where she led the entire Metro-East in hitting with a eye-popping .552 batting average. Zobrist said Rutz’ goal is to bat .600 in her final prep season.
Rutz, who will move from the leadoff spot in the batting order to the No. 3 hole, also ranked first on Highland in hits (58) on-base percentage (.608), slugging percentage (.781), doubles (15) and runs scored (34), while she also ranked second in RBIs (31) and triples (three). She also slugged one home run.
Wright will move from left field to center field, where she will use her speed and range to cover the gap-to-gap responsibilities as well as take over the leadership role in the outfield.
At the plate, Wright led the team with six triples and hit .307 with a .396 on-base percentage to go with one homer, 16 RBIs and 15 runs. She will most likely bat ninth and use her speed and on-base ability to help set the table for the top of the order.
A lot of youth
Other key returners to the fold for Zobrist’s debut season as the head coach will be a pair of sophomore pitchers, Aubrey Hacke and Jenna Gnaedinger.
Hacke overcame an injury and started pitching at the varsity level about halfway through her freshman year, but that did not stop her from still tying for the team lead in wins. The southpaw not only competed well after taking a step up to challenge the top prep hitters, but she breezed through the majority of them.
Hacke started 7-0 with a miniscule 1.13 ERA before enduring a hard-luck 3-1 defeat to Columbia in the sectional semifinal. She finished the season with a jaw-dropping average of five strikeouts per every walk she issued.
Now that she is fully recovered, Zobrist said Hacke will be able to bat, run and do everything. She will most likely bat either in the fifth or sixth slot.
Gnaedinger started the season in the starting rotation and posted decent numbers in the circle, going an even 7-7 with a 3.28 ERA.
“We have two sophomore pitchers, Aubrey Hacke and Jenna Gnaedinger, with a ton of varsity experience, so that will help us even though we are a young team with mostly sophomores, underclassmen,” Zobrist said.
Zobrist is also excited about Jill Garbett, who saw some varsity time last year and will take over full-time behind the plate for stalwart Alyssa Voegele, who is now catching at Millikin University.
“It’s nice having Jill behind the plate because she is a wall and I don’t have to worry about anything going by her,” the first-year head coach said. “She helps the pitchers through their tough situations and it’s nice just to be able to sit back and kind of let her do her thing. I don’t have to worry about that part of the game.”
Around Rutz and Wright, the rest of the position players will consist of sophomore newcomers.
Reily Kassay will take over for Rutz at third base and will bat in the leadoff position. Peyton Holzinger, who will bat behind Rutz in the fourth spot, will start at second base to team up with Rutz up the middle. Hannah Miener, who will bat fifth or sixth, will move from pitching to first base due to wrist injuries. Sierra Huelsmann will use her big arm in right field and Megan Frey fills the left-field slot previously played by Wright.
“It’s nice to have somebody who can step in since we moved Lauren wright to center and not miss a beat,” Zobrist said. “Megan has been a workhorse this whole offseason and has really grown into a great player.”
In addition, Zobrist said Kirsten Plocher, the lone freshman, is “a good, little pitcher and she is going to be a nice, little surprise for us this year.”
Zobrist said the team goals are to win 25 games, win Mississippi Valley Conference and regional titles and punch a ticket to the Class 3A State Tournament.
“That’s their big goal this year so we’ll see how that goes,” she said. “They have the potential, they’ve just got to put it together. The sky is the limit for this team. It should be an easy season for me; pretty laid back and just let them do their thing. There is so much talent on this team.”
Assisting Zobrist at the varsity level will Jennifer Wright, who is a former HHS Lady Bulldog standout in both softball and basketball and is Lauren’s mother.
Running the JV team will be Alyssa (Bircher) Duffin, who was a teammate of Zobrist throughout their playing days, and Madison Exton.
Zobrist said the JV squad also boasts a lot of talent.
“There is a lot of talent coming through Highland right now, and it’s all young and will be here for many years,” she said.