By Chris Parker
Hillcrest softball has a new coach in Michael Runnels this season after previous coach Josh McKee left for the same position at Branson.
This is Runnels first head coaching position. He was previously an assistant on the Hillcrest softball team and spent three years as an assistant coach for the Parkview baseball team as well.
He is excited to take over a Lady Hornets program that is trending in the right direction.
“The thing that attracted me to the Hillcrest job is the ability to compete right off the bat. Coach Mckee has left the program in great shape allowing anyone to come in and become successful right away,” Runnels said. “I could honestly say that if you asked me a year ago if I would take over a softball program I would say you were crazy, but after spending the season coaching softball I soon found myself looking for softball jobs instead of baseball jobs.”
That strong returning group is led by senior Haley Frillman who is one of the area’s best hitters. She posted a .512 average with 10 home runs last year. Runnels expects her to play third base this season.
“Haley is a great player and a lot of fun to watch. The thing with Haley that a lot of people don’t see is her desire to get better and her ability to be coached,” Runnels said. “She goes about her business in a very humbling way, and this rubs off on our team. As a senior and with her skill set I am looking for her to really step up and become a leader that our team really needs and I think she is ready to take on that role.”
Madison Shafferkoetter returns behind the plate at catcher coming after earning a second-team all-conference selection last year.
“Having Madison back playing the position she plays is going to be huge for us this year. Not only are we going to relay on her bat to produce offensively, but defensively she brings a sense of toughness to her game that isn’t often seen,” Runnels said.
Lanie Luthy also earned a second-team all-conference selection on the infield last year. Runnels expects her to compete for first base spot, but her bat will prove to be an important asset as well.
“Lanie started slow last year and really turned things on late which showed her maturity to continue to battle even when results were not going her way. I also believe that by having Lanie in the lineup will really benefit Haley Frillman. There were several times last year that teams would pitch around Frillman and Lanie made them pay. Having a one-two punch with Frillman and Luthy has to be one of the best in the area and hopefully this year becomes the most feared,” Runnels said.
Sarah Hale was second-team all-conference in the outfield. She was the starting shortstop her sophomore year before getting moved to the outfield where she was needed last year. Runnels expects her to compete for the centerfield spot.
“Sarah is one of those players who quietly go about her business. She is the type of player that every coach wants on their team,” Runnels said. “She went from starting shortstop her sophomore year to being moved her junior year to the outfield and didn’t complain once. She is that athletic kid who can play any position on the field and will do it well. I believe with an increase in confidence she can become an even better player this year.”
There will be a battle for innings in the circle between sophomore Halle Pyle and junior Cami Davis.
Kiki Walker returns after hitting leadoff and playing shortstop as a freshman last year.
“The experience she gained last year was invaluable and she too is the type of player that has the work ethic to get better and take her game to the next level,” Runnels said.
Senior Hannah Holland returns after an injury hampered her last year and will compete for outfield time with Davis, Emily Craven and Shannon Riley. Lydia Conlon returns for her senior season at second base. Brooke Blair will push for playing time at first base in her junior season.
Hillcrest lost just one starter from last year’s team, which has Runnels excited for what this year could bring.
“I expect this team to compete day in and day out, and play the game the right way. If we can do the little things that right way I think we will end up surprising a lot of people,” Runnels said. “With only losing two seniors from last year’s team we have the talent to be really good this year and compete with anyone on our schedule.”
Hillcrest opens the season on Aug. 24 at home against Aurora.