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Top stories 2013 -- Softball back for TMP

12/17/2013

By AUSTIN COLBERT

acolbert@dailynews.net

The Thomas More Prep-Marian softball program was a guiding light for others under Alan Billinger. In nine seasons as coach, Billinger led the Monarchs to a 165-54 record, winning the Class 4A state title in 2007 and the 3A state title in 2008, with numerous second, third and fourth-place finishes.

Then, at its height, everything went away. The last time TMP fielded a softball team was during the 2010 season. In the three years since, there haven't been enough girls to play.

But earlier this fall the school announced that the numbers -- and interest -- had returned, meaning TMP softball would be able to take the field in spring 2014.

"Our girls softball program has been successful for a lot of years. Coach Billinger did a tremendous job," TMP athletic director Gene Flax said in an August interview. "We went through some years that we didn't have the percentage of girls involved in all athletics that we needed for a school our size ... now we have a good contingency of girls coming through again."

Billinger retired from coaching at TMP after the 2011-12 basketball season, so Flax had to go out and get someone else to take the reigns of the program. He hired Melissa Schoepf, a 2001 Hays High School graduate who used to play summer softball for Billinger as part of the Hays Strikers.

Schoepf, a Hays native, joined the TMP staff as a math teacher last year after moving back to her hometown from Sylvan Grove.

"When I started teaching at TMP, it was always in the back of my mind and I think the school's mind that maybe we can get it back at some point," Schoepf said of the softball program. "What I did last year was started to see what the interest was, seeing who was out there, if we did have the numbers."

Schoepf's background in softball includes four years as a pitcher for Fort Hays State University, where she helped lead the Tigers to a Rocky Mountain Athletic Conference title her sophomore year.

Schoepf has brought in a current FHSU Tiger to be her assistant coach. Alicia Hammeke played multiple sports at TMP from 2005-2009, and was part of both state championship teams in softball. She is currently attending FHSU and is working on finishing her degree in elementary education. Her father, Curtis Hammeke, is the FHSU athletic director.

"I talked to Melissa and she asked me if I was interested and I was really excited. I didn't have to think a whole lot about it," Hammeke said. "I'm particularly excited that it's TMP. I'm excited to watch the girls grow in their abilities and watch our program develop first hand."

Both Schoepf and Hammeke know it's likely to be an uphill climb at first. Schoepf expects around 16 girls to come out for the team this season, which begins in March. Of the 16, only one is expected to be a senior and none have any softball experience at the varsity level.

Nonetheless, they are excited to have TMP softball returning to the field this spring, where they look to restore the program to its championship form.

"It was just overwhelming support that was out there. You could tell people were excited about getting softball back," Schoepf said. "We have the families on board; we have the kids on board. And we are just going from there."