The Highland High School softball team lost a handful of instrumental players from last year's team that set the school's single-season wins record. But the Lady Bulldogs have a wealth of experience and depth returning to the fold to help steer the team to success this season.
"We should have really good season," said Highland third-year coach Greg Exton. "We have plenty of experience and plenty of ability. I definitely think we've got a good shot at winning the conference again."
Highland lost four key starting cogs — Aubrey Hacke, Hannah Miener, Reily Kassay, Peyton Holzinger — to graduation and had key current senior (Kirsten Plocher) elect not to play from a team that reeled off 22 wins in a row to open the season en route to winning a school-record 29 games, which included the fourth consecutive regional title and the Mississippi Valley Conference championship.
But the Bulldogs boast eight seniors and a three-year starting junior to help offset those losses and, hopefully, lead the team to more success. For any given game, five or six should be penciled in as regulars in the lineup, including Lauren Baer, Addison Rinderer, Kourtney Zobrist, Hannah Sullens, Sidney Harnetiaux and Breann Wernle. In addition, junior Lily Garbett has started in the hole at shortstop her first two years on the roster.
The other two seniors are Mia Walters and Cassie Fuller.
Baer, who last season in her first year as the starting catcher slugged .385 with a team-leading eight home runs and a team-high 36 RBIs, said this year's team has a huge amount of potential to have a very successful season.
"We have eight seniors, and most of us have seen a lot of varsity time since our sophomore year, which helps a lot," she said. "For a lot of us upperclassmen, we played together back in 12U on the Lunachicks, and we always dreamed about going to state in high school. That dream is still very much there, and we hope to make it a reality. We haven’t officially set our team goals yet, but I can guarantee that winning our conference and getting to sectionals will be on there. Hopefully, this year I won’t have any health setbacks and be able to go the long haul with my teammates during postseason."
Rinderer went 2-0 with a 2.33 ERA in 12 innings spanning three appearances in the circle behind aces Aubrey Hacke, who went 17-2, and Kirsten Plocher, who was 10-2. But with Hacke off pitching at Division-I University of Nebraska Omaha and Plocher not playing her senior year, the left-handed Rinderer, a Missouri Baptist University recruit, will take over as Highland's No. 1 hurler.
"Being the No. 1 starter for this year is good feeling," Rinderer said. "In the past, we had two good pitchers, and they got their time to shine, and hopefully, this is the year I can have mine. I will approach it mentally like I do every other game I pitch — just go out there and work hard and try and get my defense some action to make the plays behind me. I would say it does give me a confidence boost knowing I will have to step up my game."
Rinderer was the everyday right fielder last year and really asserted herself at the plate, where, as the leadoff hitter, she batted .386 with three home runs, four doubles, two triples, four stolen bases, 23 RBIs and 26 runs scored.
"I am hoping to make my hitting even better then it was last year. It just takes a lot of work and confidence at the plate," she said. "My expectations for this season are to just all gel together as a team and make the most of the season, but mostly have fun. This year, I’m going to try and have a good, steady year, so I can continue that in the summer and, hopefully, carry it over to college ball."
When Rinderer is not pitching, Exton said she has earned the right to have her bat in the lineup, either in the outfield, at first base, or as the designated player (DP).
Highland's other top pitchers will be freshmen Sam Miener, the younger sister of Hannah Miener, who is now playing at Danville Community College, and Delaina Sigman.
"They all three throw hard, and they've all got several pitches," Exton said. "They all have a drop ball, curveball and a changeup. They all have pretty darn good control."
Exton said Miener and Sigman also are very capable hitters.
Baer will either be catching again or move to first base, Exton said.
"I love catching, but ultimately I want to play wherever I am needed and what will benefit the team the best," Baer said. "Coming back from my surgery (to remove a tumor) last season was quite an adjustment, but once I started swinging and throwing again, muscle memory took over, and I feel right back where I left off."
Last year, Baer engaged in a friendly competition with Hannah Miener and Garbett to see who could hit the most homers. The trio went back and forth before Baer won with eight. Garbett and Miener finished one back. Baer said she and Garbett plan on carrying the friendly battle over to this season.
"It helps motivate us and makes it fun," Baer said.
Shortstop is in good hands, as Garbett has been a stalwart in the hole between second and third base the past two years. Last year, she hit .382 with seven homers, six doubles, 24 RBIs and 36 runs.
Zobrist will most likely move from left field to second base. At the plate last year, she batted .349 with five doubles, three triple, one home run, 16 RBI and 23 runs.
A newcomer will take over at thrid base. Sydney Parkerson is a freshman who will replace Reily Kassay, a freshman this year playing the hot corner for Missouri Baptist.
"Parkerson is a good hitter and is a good fielder who can play both third base and shortstop," Exton said. "We are fortunate to have three good freshmen. Our young players are going to surprise people."
Sophomore Taylor Flemming will be at first base if Baer remains behind the plate and Rinderer is either pitching, playing in the outfield or used as DP.
Sullens was solid in center field and will be back there again, using her speed and glove to flag down fly balls and gappers. She is also an imrovng hitter. Last year, she finished up batting .280 with five doubles, one triple, 10 RBIs and 15 runs.
Exton expects Wernle, a Kaskakia College recruit in cross country, to take over in right field.
Sidney Harnetiaux, a senior, could either play at catcher if Baer is moved to first base, or could end up in left field.
Sigman is also a good candidate in the outfield.
Rinderer is a good outfielder and proved it by being penciled in the lineup in right field on an everyday basis a year ago.