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Softball soldiers on without Hearld

By KLINT SPILLER

kspiller@dailynews.net

The Hays High School softball team headed into the summer knowing it had its player of the future.

By mid-winter, Indian softball coach Abby Maska found out that player would be unavailable.

Sophomore Hannah Hearld, the team's primary pitcher and top hitter, tore her anterior cruciate ligament during a basketball game and will miss the 2013 Indian softball season.

"I was just crushed," senior first baseman Shea Briggs said, describing her reaction when she heard the news. "It's a big loss. Hannah is a fantastic player. She brings so much to our team, but we have some girls who can step up and do her position, hopefully as well as she can."

The Indians start the season with a doubleheader at 4 p.m. Friday at Goodland. The game originally was scheduled for Thursday, but the field was not ready due to wet conditions.

As a freshman, Hearld made waves in the Western Athletic Conference last year.

She was one of four players named to the all-WAC first team, compiling a .586 average, with 41 hits and 12 doubles -- all team highs. She was even better in the pitching circle, going 12-2 with a 1.43 earned-run average and 74 strikeouts in 83.1 innings versus 20 walks.

Now, Hays High primarily will use a pair of freshmen to fill in for her: Erika Arnhold and Madison Prough.

Sophomores Jade Rankin and Jenna Luebbers also could see some time in the circle.

"When you have an injury to a player as prolific as Hannah is, you just really need team-minded and team-oriented kids to step up and say, 'I'll throw,' even if that's not something they wanted to do or expected to do," Maska said.

Maska said Arnhold and Prough have plenty of experience from playing summer ball. However, Hearld's shoes could be some big ones to fill.

Briggs said there will be pressure on the offense to make it easier for the Indians' young pitchers.

"Hopefully, everyone will get one more hit a game than usual and bring the batting averages up so the pitchers don't have as much pressure on the mound," Briggs said.

The Indians have plenty of returners to help do that.

Senior Katelyn Schumacher, first team all-WAC last year and University of Kansas signee, hit .472 last season, tied for the team lead in runs scored with 38 and was second on the team in home runs with five.

Junior catcher Haley Wells, also first team all-WAC a year ago, hit .414. Briggs, who hit .411, and senior outfielder Courtney Storer (.324) were second-team all-WAC selections.

However, the Indians also graduated some key players from its 20-3 state tournament team, particularly slugging third baseman Paige Lunsford, the WAC Player of the Year. Lunsford hit a team-high 11 homers last season and led the squad with a 1.086 slugging percentage.

Hays High also lost to graduation second baseman Makenzie Flaska and outfielder Jillian Taylor, who each were second-team all-WAC selections, and starting outfielder Mackenzie Albers.

"It's definitely different," Briggs said. "There's a lot of new faces on varsity, whereas last year we had no one new. Everyone had played there before.

"It's very different," Briggs added. "It's a different feel, but it's still fun. It's still the Hays High softball team, and we are expecting out of ourselves to still be good."

To fill the void left by Lunsford, Schumacher will move from shortstop to third base, while shortstop and second base will be filled by a combination of players -- freshman Albany Shaffer, junior Taylor Adams and freshman Tessa Stickel.

"We've had some good competition on the infield," Maska said. "We've had a few girls look good at the middle infield spots, so we are just rotating them around and figure out what could be the best fit for our starting lineup."

Whoever doesn't win a middle infield spot will move to the outfield, where Storer will start in center. Junior Julie Balzer, who primarily served as designated hitter last season, will take the third remaining outfield spot.

With Hearld's injury and four starters lost to graduation, Maska said it will be important for the Indians to play as a complete unit with all of the players stepping up from time to time.

"We are really going to have to rely on everyone contributing and really be responsible for the position they play," Maska said. "No one is going to be able to do it all for us."