The 2018 softball season was one of learning and growth for Hayleigh Juenger.
As a sophomore at O’Fallon High School, Juenger finished 6-8 in the pitcher’s circle for a Panthers team that went 19-10 and placed third in the Southwestern Conference.
But a sub-.500 pitching mark and first-found regional tournament loss weren’t nearly good enough for the competitive and self-motivated Juenger, who took a big step forward as a junior in the spring of 2019.
“Going into this season, my biggest goal for myself was to be better than I was last year. I knew that I had grown both physically and mentally, so I had high expectations for myself to continue to grow.,’’ she said. “ I grew tremendously from sophomore to junior year. I took my time in the weight room very seriously and worked very hard to get stronger and more conditioned. My body reached a limit sophomore year, and I wanted to be sure that that didn’t happen junior year.
“I also grew a ton mentally. I found a good balance of confidence and being humble, and was able to trust that my preparation would carry me as far as I needed it to.”
In 2019, Juenger and the Panthers challenged for a sectional championship. With Juenger finishing the season with a 21-7 record and 1.82 ERA, O’Fallon went 25-10 overall and placed second in the SWC behind Edwardsville.
But it was the Panthers who had the final say of the season. With Juenger in charge from the outset, O’Fallon defeated Edwardsville 7-1 in the title game of the Belleville East Regional and advanced to the Normal Community Sectional where it lost to Moline 1-0.
The heartbreaking loss doesn’t diminish all that’s been accomplished by Juenger, who has been named the Belleville News-Democrat Class 3A-4A Player of the Year.
O’Fallon coach Lauren Muniz said Juenger has become a better pitcher in many way, but has benefited mainly by her experience.
“The difference for Hayleigh from her sophomore to junior season is simply experience. Entering her junior season, Hayleigh had two years of tough SWC softball under her belt. She knew what it was like to throw in competitive, intense, and high-stakes games.,’’ Muniz said.
“Hayleigh knew what she wanted to achieve during her junior season and she made the most of her off-season preparation. She worked hard in the weight room to improve her stamina and velocity, she developed a new pitch while significantly improving her off-speed pitch, and she challenged herself to improve her mental game.”
The Player of the Year honor is the second in as many years for the Juenger family. Older brother Hayden Juenger was chosen as the News-Democrat Class 3A-4A baseball Player of the Year a year ago after leading O’Fallon into the Class 4A Super-Sectional.
Currently attending Missouri State University, Juenger was 2-5 with a 4.58 ERA as a freshman this past season.
Hayleigh Juenger said she and her brother have a great relationship and help each other with their pitching.
“Hayden is one of my best friends. Growing up, we were always super close and pushed each other to be the best we could be, both as athletes and as people.,’’ Juenger said. “Hayden didn’t really play a part in the start of my pitching career; however, as we both got older we definitely started helping each other with the mental side of things.
‘”It takes a lot of mental stability to be a pitcher, as every single play begins with you which can create a lot of pressure. As pitchers, we both had to learn how to be confident and carry ourselves with a strong presence, while remaining humble and remembering to be thankful for the ability that God has given us. Hayden is very supportive of me, and I am supportive of him too, but we are definitely competitive with each other.”
Softball is a year-long sport for Juenger who plays for the Collinsville-based Extreme Elite 18u Gold. She has been a member of the Extreme organization for the past seven years and recently took part in the Triple Crown Fireworks tournament in Colorado.
She also has competed in the Brown University MIT Camp. Juenger is still in the early stages of her recruiting process.
“On the recruiting front, I have been in contact with a few coaches and have received a couple offers.,’’ Juenger said. “I am looking for a school that fits both my academic needs and athletic wants, as well as a campus that feels like home. I want to either go into pre-med studies to later become a pediatrician, or early childhood education to become an elementary school teacher.’’
But college is still a year away for Juenger, who has her senior season to lead what should be the top softball team in the area in 2020. The Panthers return seven of their nine starters from a team that won 25 games.
“As far as going into my senior season, I am hoping to develop another pitch, to continue to get stronger so that I can throw harder, and to really master the pitches I already have so that I can be as efficient as possible,” she said.
Juenger said she plays on a team of good players and even better friends.
“Our team is definitely something special. We all bond really well together, and because of our trust and friendships off the field, we are able to transfer that onto the field.,’’ Juenger said. “It is super important to trust your teammates and to all be on the same page, and I think that is something this team worked really hard to accomplish.”