Indians come together to make state
By AUSTIN COLBERT
With an entirely sophomore infield outside of pitcher and catcher -- most of which were playing their position for the first time on varsity -- there was a time Hannah Hearld often felt she had to do all the work.
Early in the season against lesser competition, Hearld, the Hays High School softball team's star junior pitcher, was able to do just that. But as the opposition has increased in level it's become more important for her to be able to trust the defense behind her.
"We are going to come across games where I just don't dominate batters and the defense is going to have to step up," Hearld said. "At the beginning of the season I maybe felt I had to not let them hit it because my defense was questionable, but now they're not. I know if I do let them hit it they are going to make plays for me."
The Hays High defense, which had been inconsistent much of the season, showed how far it had come last Wednesday in wins over Goddard-Eisenhower and Great Bend in the Class 5A regionals, wins that advanced the Indians to this week's state tournament in Manhattan.
In the first game, a 9-4 win over Eisenhower, Hearld only had one strikeout, but was aided by a solid performance from her defense. In the second game, a 3-0 win over Great Bend, Hearld did record nine strikeouts, but anything she didn't get was quickly swallowed up by the defense, which even turned a pair of double plays.
"It was a lot of fun, the Eisenhower game. It was back and forth and pretty much everybody stepped up. It was really fun to get a lot of balls and know we could all do it," sophomore shortstop Albany Schaffer said. "I feel like this winter we all worked together all offseason and were just there for each other. We all progressed and moved forward."
Schaffer started at shortstop as a freshman before moving to outfield the remainder of the season. Second baseman Nicole Dinkel spent last spring on the track team and first baseman Kylie Brown played junior varsity as a freshman.
Only third baseman Tessa Stickel entered this season with any real varsity experience in the infield, however limited.
But as the season progressed so did these four sophomores, who have proven in recent games to be just as reliable as Hearld is in the circle.
"They are going to put the ball in play. That's just the name of the game at this point. So it requires a solid defense, especially a good infield behind your pitcher," HHS softball coach Abby Maska said of the team's competition at state. "To battle the inconsistencies that we did all season long to play our two most consistent games of the year on the same day is a testament to how hard the girls have worked to get ready for this time of year."
The room for error is only going to get smaller for Hays High (18-4) this week at state. The Indians head to Manhattan on Thursday where they will play Kapaun Mount Carmel (16-6) in the quarterfinals at 7 p.m. on Field B of the Twin Oaks Complex.
Hays High is the tournament's No. 3 seed, while Kapaun is No. 6. The winner of Thursday's game is guaranteed two more games on Friday, the semifinal game putting Thursday's victor against either No. 2 seed Bishop Carroll (22-0 and the three-time defending state champion) or No. 7 seed Tecumseh-Shawnee Heights (15-7).
And if they want to make it to Friday, the Indians are probably going to need more than just another strong performance from Hearld. But if regionals were any indication, the HHS defense looks to finally be capable of cleaning up anything Hearld doesn't get herself.
"The way they've been able to come together and learn their new positions and just their mentality that goes along with those positions have been incredible," Maska said. "And the plays they were making -- we weren't just getting the outs at one. We were getting the lead runners; we were turning double plays. We were doing things that a veteran infield does."