A young but enthusiastic Hiland Lady Hawks softball team seems to have taken on a new energy under first-year head coach Jason Hazen.
Hazen, who has been an assistant coach for state power Hillsdale for five years, has brought a great deal of excitement to a team that has seen its fair share of struggles over the past years.
And on Saturday, March 25 in a split double-header with Smithville and Claymont, the lady Hawks got to experience one actual victory in walk-off fashion, and one moral victory that Hazen said was every bit as important as the actual win.
The victory came in a comeback 8-7 win over Smithville.
Starting pitcher, freshman Nikki Keim, allowed three first-inning runs before settling in and not allowing another through the next five frames. Meanwhile, Hiland struggled to get anything going on offense, and trailed 3-0 going into the bottom of the sixth inning.
However, a pair of Smithies errors and a walk loaded the bases and began a rally that would give Hiland a 4-3 lead. A pwild pitch led to the first run, Lexi Kline plated the second run with an RBI ground-out, Brynley McVicker’s fly ball plated another and one scored when Hayley Schrock was plunked by a pitch.
Smithville responded by taking advantage of two Hiland errors to begin the top of the seventh inning. The Smithies then strung together four straight hits to make it 7-4, and only a heady play by Hiland that saw a throw come in from center field to home plate, where catcher McVicker fired a strike to second base to nail the advancing runner for the final out of the inning.
Again, the Lady Hawks could have folded. In past years, they might have, but they came in and went right back to work.
Walk and an error opened the inning, giving Hiland hope. Brittany Wengerd then walked to load the bases, and Ashley Weaver came through with an RBI single to trim the deficit to 7-5. A wild pitch allowed a run to score, and advanced all runners, and after a strikeout, Lexi Kline stepped in and came through with a clutch hit that plated both of the Wengerds, as the Lady Hawks went wild after Ashley Wengerd scooted across home plate with the game-winning run.
Keim said the thrilling win was about gaining some positive momentum for a team that has struggled in recent years, and she said it was a nice way to begin the season.
“I feel like our seniors really deserved that win,” Keim said of the comeback win in game one. “They haven’t had a lot of success, and being able to come back and win the first game for them that was really huge. I think that was the most fun game I have ever played in.”
The fact that the Lady Hawks rallied not once but twice from three-run deficits showed that this team is capable of responding to adversity.
“There was no getting down on ourselves,” Keim said. “We took the lead, we fell behind and we came right back to win it. It was exciting that we never gave up.”
Game two was a 9-0 loss to Claymont, a Div. II team that was a district runner-up last season and has plenty of offensive and defensive firepower back.
But the loss aside, it was a victory of a different type for the Lady Hawks.
Starting pitcher Cheyenne Schrock allowed seven runs in the first two innings, as the Mustangs clouted four hits to produce three runs in the first and then kept pounding away, scoring four more in the second.
But rather than give up, Schrock settled in, the defense started making plays and Hiland kept fighting. However, Claymont’s defense proved to be more than stingy, making some sensational plays on diving catches in the outfield. The Mustangs also made every play on defense, and the talented Claymont crew wasn’t about to let Hiland crawl back into the game, no matter how hard the lady Hawks fought.
“They made every single play,” Hazen said of Claymont. “That is a very talented team, but I am proud of our kids for not giving up.”
Claymont would put up single tallies in the fifth and sixth inning, but each time it hoped to put the 10-run rule into affect, Cheyenne Schrock and Hiland’s defense closed the door.
Meanwhile, Hiland’s bats started producing hits, but each time they rallied Claymont’s defense proved to be too good. In the fourth inning, Kline and McVicker shot singles up the middle but were stranded. In the fifth, Hayley Schrock singled and Cheyenne Schrock walked, but they too were stranded.
In the sixth, Keim, McVicker and Hannah Gerber singled to load the bases, but again the Mustangs’ defense stiffened and held Hiland off the board.
Hiland collected seven hits in the nightcap compared to just two in the first game, but could not produce a single run in the loss.
“The girls played hard and we had a very aggressive approach at the plate,” Hazen said. “That is what we have been working on. There is plenty of room for improvement, but I am pretty proud of the girls. I keep preaching that the game is never over until it is over, and we rallied and won. In that second game, we showed a lot of guts and we didn’t quit. We could have stopped playing, but we battled, and that is important. I have heard in the past that we would kind of give up when bad things happened, but that kind of attitude is not acceptable.”
For a program looking to make it mark, it was a good day for a young Hiland team that hopes to keep getting better and better as the season progresses.