By Dana Harding (For OzarksSportsZone.com)
After five-straight losing seasons, Hillcrest softball turned things around in 2018 with a 16-12 record. The Lady Hornets fell to Bolivar in the district championship.
To spawn the turnaround, first-year head coach Michael Runnels helped create a relaxed, enjoyable environment within the program.
“I need to make sure that my team is having fun,” Runnels said. “Success shouldn’t be all about winning and losing. By making softball fun, winning will come but, better yet, my players will create memories that will last a lifetime.”
Expectations remain high for the 2019 campaign; however, before the Lady Hornets take the field, Runnels must replace some key components.
Five seniors depart the program due to graduation, including Haley Frillman (.500 BA, .606 OBP, 8 HR, 31 RBI), Madison Shafferkoetter (.306 BA, .358 RBI), Sarah Hale (.257 BA, .366 OBP), Lydia Conlon (.274 BA, .349 OBP) and Hannah Holland.
Frillman, a second-team all-state selection, will continue her career this fall at Missouri Valley College.
“I had five key graduates that will be missed,” Runnels said. “All were key in the success of the 2018 season and will greatly be missed, and all five will leave a huge hole defensively that isn’t going to be easy to fill.”
Despite the roster turnover, Hillcrest returns several key components, including junior pitcher Halle Pyle (.465 BA, .540 OBP, 134.3 innings, 3.44 ERA).
“As a sophomore last year, Halle made huge strides and will look for her to be even better this year,” Runnels said. “She has grit and determination to be the best player on the field.”
The Lady Hornets also return senior Cami Davis, senior Shannon Reilly, junior Kiki Walker (.358 BA, .402 OBP) and senior Lanie Luthy.
With several roster spots needing to be filled, a host of varsity newcomers will compete for playing time, including a quartet of seniors in Emily Craven, Grace Percival, Taylor Deloach and Brooke Blair.
Sophomores Sarah Wilkinson, Maddie Wilkinson and Makayla Deloach could also step into impact roles for the Lady Hornets.
With a senior-laden roster, Runnels hopes to capitalize on his team’s experience and continue building on last season’s momentum.
“Having the experience playing for a district title and coming up short leaves a bad taste in our mouths,” Runnels said. “I look to have seven to eight seniors playing at times. With being around the program for the last four years, they know what it takes to get the job done.”
The returning Pyle will once again anchor the pitching staff.
“Halle Pyle isn’t necessarily a strikeout pitcher (averaged a little over four), but she can step up and get a big strikeout when needed,” Runnels said. “She will rely on her defense to step up and make plays behind her.”
Hillcrest has some depth in the circle, as well, with Davis and Sarah Wilkinson both expected to compete for innings.
“Cami also has varsity pitching experience from last year, and I look for her to compete with Halle to get time in the circle,” Runnels said. “Sarah is a dark horse. She has really focused on becoming the best pitcher she can be this summer, and the work has paid off.”
The Lady Hornets’ trio will be supported by a more-than-capable defense, which will help the Lady Hornets compete night in and night out.
“Defensively we should be really solid,” Runnels said. “When the ball is put into play I have a tremendous amount of confidence knowing the play that needs to be made will be made.”
At the plate, Runnels expects his team’s experience and versatility to pay big dividends this season throughout the order.
“I expect our lineup to be very solid from top to bottom this season,” Runnels said. “I expect us to be able to bunt when the time is needed but will also have power from several spots in the lineup.”
Hillcrest opens the season Aug. 30 at Aurora.