By AUSTIN COLBERT
Hannah Hearld's freshman season for the Hays High School softball team was nothing short of phenomenal. The ace pitcher was a dominant force on the mound right from the get-go, going 12-2 as a starter and leading the Indians to a 20-3 record and trip to the Class 5A state tournament.
Then, at the tail end of basketball season last year, Hearld tore her anterior cruciate ligament and was forced to miss her entire sophomore softball campaign.
"I was going up for a layup and a girl got into me and I felt it pop. I tried to get up and it gave out," Hearld said. "I had to stay tough about it and be there for my team and still support them. But it was really hard watching them, sitting on the sidelines."
Without Hearld, the Indians took a step back in 2013, going 12-9 and missing out on the state tournament for the first time in two years. On the plus side, it allowed other players, such as current sophomore Madison Prough and junior Jenna Luebbers, to gain invaluable experience filling in for Hearld on the mound.
"It was a little nerve racking at first, having to fill her big shoes. But after a while I kind of took it in and had to do the job," said Prough, who started 14 of the team's 21 games last season. "It gave me a lot more experience on varsity so that can carry over to this year, having to help Hannah if she needs the backup."
Hearld, now a junior, is back and fully recovered from her injury. She was cleared for physical activity in the fall and played winter ball in preparation for the 2014 season, which gets underway at 4 p.m. Thursday against Goodland at Bickle/Schmidt Sports Complex.
"Last year really hurt not having Hannah on the mound," said Abby Maska, Hays High's sixth-year head coach. "But I think in the long run it's really going to help this year having all those freshman get some experience. I think we will be a better team this year than we would have been."
While the Indians look to be strong on the mound with Hearld, Prough and Luebbers, the rest of the infield will have a much different look. Hays High will start a sophomore at each base and shortstop, led by third baseman Tessa Stickel. The only real experience in the infield will be fourth-year starter Haley Wells at catcher.
The outfield is also a question mark heading into the season, outside of senior center fielder Julie Balzer.
"It's nice where we need it right up the middle of the field to have juniors and seniors, people who are pretty experienced, to help lead the team," Maska said. "Even the sophomores this year seem so much more relaxed and more willing to take risks and go for the big plays instead of keeping it conservative and fearing messing up."
Among the improved sophomores is Stickel, who Maska said "always seemed really nervous" as a freshman last season. Not overly vocal on the field, Stickel still made her presence felt as a starter at second base a year ago. She was also an effective batter, hitting .313.
"I feel like earlier in games I was really nervous, but once the season got going I really felt comfortable," said Stickel, who Maska expects to be one of the Indians' best offensive weapons this season. "I feel a lot more confident because I think I know what I'm doing now."
Key to the Indians' success this season is replacing three important seniors from a year ago in Courtney Storer, Shea Briggs and Katelyn Schumacher, who is now playing softball for the University of Kansas.
But Maska believes the talent is there, it's just a matter of overcoming the youthful mistakes from a year ago. And having Hearld back on the mound helps, too.
"She's had a year of rehab and recovery and she's been working really hard. I think she's even better than we could have expected," Maska said. "We made a lot of errors that our program isn't accustomed to making. I just think errors on defense last year cost us in several doubleheaders. I think 12-9 last year was an underachievement for the level of skill I felt we had."