Softball Cardinals aiming high

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By: 
Rob Reischel
Lauren Banke and Middleton's girls softball team have high hopes in 2016./File photo

Perry Hibner understands he’s not re-inventing the wheel.

Things have been awfully good inside Middleton’s girls softball program for more than three decades now. From the late, great Russ Shaub to Cherie Hellenbrand — and after a few hiccups, back to Hellenbrand again — the Cardinals have been a force.

So Hibner — set to begin his first season as Middleton’s head coach — won’t tinker and toy a whole lot. In fact, when the Cardinals begin their 2016 season on Tuesday at Madison East, it will be business as usual.

“We’ve made some slight tweaks, but I’ve never understood why a coach would come into a successful program and start changing everything,” said Hibner, who was an assistant coach under Hellenbrand last year. “Cherie and her staff, which I was fortunate to be a part of last year, did a great job of teaching, pushing and challenging the girls to get better every day.”

And Middleton most certainly did that under Hellenbrand.

Hellenbrand, a former MHS standout herself, coached the Cardinals from 2006-’10. In that time, Hellenbrand guided Middleton to the state tournament in 2008, the first time the Cardinals reached state in 15 years.

Hellenbrand left from 2011-’13 and the program fell on hard times. But Hellenbrand returned in 2014 and guided the Cardinals to a 34-14 record the past two seasons and a share of last year’s Big Eight Conference title.

Hellenbrand stepped away in September when it became clear balancing family and softball was too tall of a task. But she left behind one of the more talented rosters in the area.

“I would assume most of the coaches in the Big Eight expect us to contend for the title again this year. We certainly are capable — if the coach doesn’t hurt us,” Hibner said, tongue planted firmly in cheek. “We know we have a target on our back.

“However, we also realize nothing is guaranteed. We have to work hard every day and prove ourselves all the time. I tell the girls they have to earn their starting spot every day in practice. I think that attitude will serve us well.”

Middleton’s pitching should also serve it well.

The Cardinals return a pair of gifted pitchers in sophomore Lauren Banke and junior Makenzie Kopp. Banke went 7-3 last season with a 2.39 ERA, struck out 36, walked 28 and was named second-team all-Big Eight Conference. Kopp went 9-2 with a 3.80 ERA, struck out 38, walked 17 and was named honorable-mention all-conference.

While both pitchers could probably be an ace on another staff, they’ll share top billing at Middleton.

“I think both pitchers have a lot of upside,” Hibner said. “Lauren is an incredible athlete, while Makenzie is the kind of power pitcher that really gives some teams huge problems. If we pitched just one, I’m guessing that pitcher would be first team (all-conference), but that isn’t in the best interests of either girl or the team.

“I think Lauren and Makenzie are poised to have even bigger years in 2016.

“Both throw in the mid-50s consistently. Lauren has a number of pitches and has great movement on many of them. Makenzie has a nice fastball-changeup combination. I wouldn’t say either is a high-strikeout pitcher so a key for us again this season will be playing great defense behind them. We can’t afford to give up extra outs.”

Middleton returns several key members of its lineup, as well.

Junior center fielder Rachel Everson was a first-team all-conference selection last season.

Everson, who has already accepted a scholarship to Indiana University-Purdue University Fort Wayne, batted a team-high .495 last season. She also led Middleton with 47 hits, had a team-best 12 walks, tied for first in runs scored (27) and was second on the team in RBI (28).

Sophomore left fielder Jessica Parente was a second-team all-conference selection last year after batting .407. Parente led Middleton with 34 RBI, tied for second with three home runs, was second on the team with 33 hits and led the team with three doubles.

“I’m biased, but I believe Rachel and Jessica are the two best left-handed hitters in the state,” Hibner said. “They can both hit for power and average. They can hit to all fields.

“Most hitters have a hole or two a pitcher can exploit. They don’t. They are also great teammates who support everyone in the program. It’s almost more fun watching them cheer on the players on our JV-2 team during conditioning then watching them hit. Almost!”

Senior first baseman Shelby Ballweg was a second-team all-conference selection a year ago. Ballweg batted .393 last season, led the Cardinals with five home runs, tied for second in RBI (28) and tied for second in runs scored (25).

“Shelby is a three-year starter at first base and she may be our most cerebral player,” Hibner said. “She is always asking good, probing questions, which as a coach I love because it helps all of the players understand the game more.

“We knew last year pitchers would try to work her outside, because she is such a good inside hitter. I was so proud of the improvement she made taking pitches the other way. I told her I expect multiple home runs over the right-center fence this spring.”

Middleton also has several other players ready to make their mark.

Senior Bailey Kalscheur played third base late in the season and could be poised for a big year. Junior Mya Williams and senior Katherine Hibner will likely be the Cardinals’ middle infielders. Williams has a big arm, while Hibner is a terrific fielder.

Senior Megan Delabarre, senior Kalyn Sonday, junior Molly Trehey and junior Sara Wettstein will also push for playing time on the infield.

“Much like last year, we have a lot of depth,” Perry Hibner said. “I truly believe our reserves in 2015 would have finished in the top-four in the Big Eight. That’s a nice problem to have.”

Junior Hanna Fisher and junior Katrina Anderson will both play in the outfield. Senior Amber Maas and Anderson will both play catcher, as well.

“I know the team has lofty goals,” Perry Hibner said. “It’s a nice position to be in knowing we have the talent to achieve them, provided we do all the little things every day.” 

 

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