By CONOR NICHOLL
Thomas More Prep-Marian softball coach Melissa Schoepf noticed her players were ready in pregame for Thursday's season opener against Salina-Sacred Heart, the Monarchs' first game since the program was suspended before the 2011 season.
"A lot of nerves and anxiety, which I expected," Schoepf said.
More than anything, Schoepf was anxious to see what weaknesses TMP had and where the Monarchs needed improvement.
Schoepf received plenty of information on her new squad in a doubleheader at TMP Field. The Monarchs won the first game, 18-6, and lost the second contest, 24-13, when they allowed 11 runs in the fifth inning. Both games were called after six innings because of the mercy rule.
"That's the team we want out there," Schoepf said. "They did play really well that first game."
Sacred Heart won six state championships from 1998-2007 and finished second to Silver Lake in Class 3A last season, but the Knights graduated their top pitchers and returned just four starters. For many years, Sacred Heart and TMP, which won state titles in 2007 and '08, matched up in great games.
In 2007, TMP went 24-2 with a pair of 1-0 losses to Sacred Heart. TMP had a 23-game winning streak, while Sacred Heart had a state record 72-game run.
"It seems like it was always a one-run game," Sacred Heart coach Dave Hadorn said. "It didn't matter. We both had pitchers, and we both were tough. There were a couple of years where it didn't matter who won. We were both going to win state or be in the finals."
Thursday produced two inexperienced teams. The Monarchs had plenty of summer experience, but had no seniors in the starting lineup or anyone who had played high school before. Sacred Heart carried three seniors.
"I like the direction that TMP is going," Hadorn said. "I met their coaches beforehand. I kind of listened and watched them warmup and stuff. They are definitely doing it the right way. I hated that the last couple of years we couldn't play them. I always enjoyed playing TMP."
The Monarchs quickly put away the pregame nerves. TMP never trailed in the first contest with two runs in the first inning, three in the second, two in the third and five in the fifth and sixth. Sacred Heart (1-1) added one run in the second, three in the third and single runs in the fifth and sixth.
"We settled in," Schoepf said. "We started out that first game, right away got out of the first inning, and we were able to score, so that took some pressure off. We always want to try to answer first."
Junior shortstop Kelli Veach sung the national anthem shortly before the 4:07 p.m. first pitch. Then, Veach, batting third in the lineup, had four singles and a walk in five Game 1 plate appearances.
Veach collected the first hit of TMP's new era at 4:15 p.m. She scored in the first inning, drove in a run in the second and fifth, and walked and scored in the sixth. In Game 2, Veach went 1 of 4 with two RBIs.
"She does not get rattled easily," Schoepf said. "She can keep her composure, and even if she is down 0-2 in practice, she has been pretty consistent at battling with pitches, and doesn't go down looking. She is always up there trying to get a hit."
Freshman Alison Helget worked a complete game in Game 1. Sacred Heart sophomore Elizabeth Anderson took the loss in the first contest and won Game 2 in relief.
"She kept the batters off guard, was mixing pitches up and seemed pretty consistent," Schoepf said of Helget.
Helget then relieved junior Laurel Hageman with one out in the fourth inning in Game 2. Helget worked seven outs before Hageman collected the last out of the sixth inning. Hageman struck out six batters for her 11 outs and used a changeup effectively, but the Knights scored three runs in the first, two in the second, third and fourth and four in the fifth.
"They are very much like us," Hadorn said. "Their pitching is probably a little ahead of us, and our hitting might be a little ahead of them."
TMP had five runs in the second, four in the third and four in the fifth, mainly off walks.
"We have got pitchers that are just starting out, and tell them they have to throw strikes," Hadorn said. "I don't care if the other team gets 50 hits. I don't like walks. Tonight's why. It was a lot of walks."
Sophomore shortstop Karli Alvarez had a big day for the Knights after playing on junior varsity most of last season and improving throughout 2013. Alvarez went 3 of 3 with three runs scored in the first contest, and 4 of 5 with a run scored and three RBIs in the second contest.
"Either one of them can start the game," Schoepf said of her pitchers. "They each bring their own strengths, and they both have their own weaknesses. One thing that Laurel did really well and I was really proud of her for is she threw the changeup consistently."