By AUSTIN COLBERT
Laurel Hageman was in seventh grade the last time Thomas More Prep-Marian had a softball team. Having played the sport since she could lift a bat, the current TMP junior has had to wait patiently for its return this season.
"We obviously didn't have a team when I was a freshman and that was heartbreaking," Hageman said. "I've been playing ever since I was five. I've been waiting ever since I was a freshman to get out on the field."
On Thursday, TMP softball will return after a three-year hiatus with a home doubleheader against Salina's Sacred Heart. First pitch is set for 4 p.m. at TMP Field.
The TMP softball program was first suspended for the 2011 season due to a lack of available players. The low numbers continued for the next few years, resulting in the cancelation of both the 2012 and 2013 seasons.
But this year, with a deep freshmen class, TMP softball is able to return to the field under the guidance of first-time coach Melissa Schoepf.
"Essentially we are starting back over from ground zero. Getting in there, none of these kids have had the opportunity to play at the high school level," Schoepf said. "The kids are really excited. I know the coaches and I are really excited to get going and see what we can do. We've had a lot of alumni support and school support. I think there are a lot of people anxious to get this going and happy to see it back."
Schoepf is a 2001 Hays High School graduate and former Fort Hays State University pitcher. She spent many summers in her youth playing for the Hays Strikers and coach Alan Billinger, who in nine seasons led the Monarch program to a 165-54 record and two state titles.
A key part of the 2007 and 2008 state title teams was Alicia Hammeke, who played multiple sports for the Monarchs from 2005 to 2009. She has joined Schoepf as an assistant coach this season to help revive the once-storied program.
"I love being a part of it," Hammeke said. "It was such a big part of my life growing up. It's been fun. It's a real exciting experience to be able to be part of rebuilding the program. It was obviously devastating that it ended prior to this."
TMP enters the 2014 season with 19 players on its roster, 11 of which are freshmen. The Monarchs will have only five upperclassmen and expect to start six underclassmen on varsity.
With 19 players, the Monarchs are also able to field a junior varsity squad, although Schoepf admits this is going to stretch both teams thin on numbers. She plans to play 10 on varsity and nine on JV, barring injuries or other unforeseen circumstances.
"I have 19 kids out here that truly want to learn this game and put forth any effort that we have asked them to," Schoepf said. "They have always given their 100 percent. They are soaking in all this information. We have thrown so much at them these last few weeks."
Hageman, one of four juniors, will be the veteran member of the Monarchs' two-pitcher rotation this year. She will split time with freshman Alison Helget on the mound, with the other playing right field when not pitching.
The rest of TMP's infield will be young. Sophomore Taylor Dinkel is expected to start at first base, with freshman Jodi Veach at second base and freshman Katelyn Zimmerman at third base. Jodi Veach's sister, junior Kelli Veach, will play shortstop, and sophomore Hannah Michaud will be the catcher.
The remainder of the outfield includes sophomore Julia Briseno in center and junior Heidi Gottschalk in left field.
"I think it will be exciting," Gottschalk said of the team's season opener on Thursday. "I don't know how the game is going to go. It's our first one. But I think it will be fun."
Thursday's season opener was originally scheduled for Friday, but the day was moved up because numerous members of the TMP softball team are also part of the school band, which plans to leave Friday morning for an overnight field trip.